Friday, January 28, 2022

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Civic Skinny

Gortz Haus owners like gays — but up to a point. Look who voted — and who didn’t — last month.


That lawsuit filed last week by Betty and Richard Odgaard against the Iowa Civil Rights Commission is bringing out the worst in some people. And not just the Odgaards.

The Odgaards run The Gortz Haus Gallery in a former church in Grimes. The gallery sells art and gifts and runs a lunch bistro. (“Ask about our fabulous desserts!”) But the main thing it does, according to the lawsuit, is “host wedding ceremonies in the former sanctuary of the church building.”

Unless the people wanting to get married are gay.

The Odgaards say they really like gay people — “the Odgaards have provided goods and services to gays and lesbians at the Gallery without regard to their sexual orientation,” the suit says — but just don’t think they should marry one another. “They sincerely believe it would be sinful for them to personally plan, facilitate, or host a wedding ceremony that contradicts their religious beliefs.” They are Mennonites, and while some Mennonites embrace gays, the Odgaards are not among them.

So earlier this year, the Odgaards told Lee Stafford and Jared Ellars of West Des Moines that they couldn’t marry one another at Gortz Haus, that they’d have to go elsewhere. The men filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, and the Odgaards’ suit says the commission “is now seeking to force the Odgaards to plan, facilitate, and host same-sex wedding ceremonies at the gallery.” (There is no public ruling yet from the commission, and there is no public document.) The lawsuit was filed in Polk County District Court, and the Odgaards are represented by Frank Harty and others at the Nyemaster Law Firm, who are abetted by lawyers from a Washington group called the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. (The Becket website notes that the Odgaards “have gay friends and family members whom they hold in high regard.”)


The Iowa Supreme Court, in the Varnum case, made clear that just as gay Iowans have a constitutional right to marry one another, Iowa churches have a constitutional right to refuse to perform such ceremonies. Indeed, Justice Mark Cady’s decision was as eloquent about religious liberty as it was about personal freedoms.

The problem, of course, is that, while the handsome stone Gortz Haus Gallery with its stained windows, looks like a church — indeed, it was St. Peter’s Lutheran Church from when it was built in 1937 until the congregation moved in 2001 — it isn’t a church. It’s a gallery and a catering and private wedding venue. And galleries and catering and private wedding venues are subject to the same nondiscrimination laws as are barbershops and restaurants and businesses and ballparks. That’s what the Civil Rights Commission apparently reiterated this summer. Thus, the lawsuit, which will be defended by the office of Attorney General Tom Miller.

But some people — supporters of gay rights if not necessarily gay themselves — can’t seem to wait for the court to decide. Rather, they are sending emails to and about the Odgaards, and the emails are less than polite. Some are on websites, and some are exhibits in the lawsuit. Examples:

“I just saw the news. Betty, you’re very old and almost dead. How do you both feel, knowing that America, and the world, will be a better place without you?”

“You are mean, rude, selfish, mother fucker racist sons of bitches from hell….Fuck u…Mother fuckers….Fuck you. Fuck your god. Fuck your religions….Your business will go down the fuckin drain.”

“You Ms. Betty Odgaard, owner of Gortz Haus are now known to be the Bigot you are. I hope your new International, worldwide fame, and the state of Iowa, give you all the rewards you deserved in this world — and provides you with a very warm greeting in the afterlife.”

“I don’t envy you the hell that you’re going to have to pay for what you’ve done here. Let me make myself very clear. You are, in no way, shape, form or fashion, showing the love that the supreme being you pretend to worship showed to people when he walked the earth. Shame on you.”

“You’ve wasted your life believing that other people aren’t good enough and not treating them the same as you would anyone else who is like you or has the same beliefs as you.”

“Mennonites worship Satan anyway, so they were better off this way.”

“Oh, dear, you poor woman, how upsetting that you’re worried about being ‘ostracized.’ You poor thing, I wonder what that must feel like? Perhaps you should ask the two men you JUST GOT THROUGH OSTRACIZING, you evil twisted ugly awful hypocritical bigot.”

So much for civil discourse. …

All told, 14,580 people voted in the school board elections in Polk County last month. Cityview asked the election office whether elected officials voted. These officials did vote: Congressman Tom Latham, state senators Dick Dearden and Jack Hatch and Janet Petersen and Jack Whitver and Brad Zaun and Matt McCoy. State representatives Joe Riding, Rick Olson, Kevin McCarthy, Bruce Hunter, Ako Abdul-Samad, Marti Anderson, John London, Kevin Koester, Jake Highfill, Peter Cownie and Chris Hagenow. Polk County supervisors Bob Brownell, Angela Connolly, John Mauro, Steve Van Oort and Tom Hockensmith. Sheriff Bill McCarthy, County Attorney John Sarcone, County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald, County Recorder Julie Haggerty and County Treasurer Mary Maloney. Mayor Franklin Cownie and council members Christine Hensley, Brian Meyer, Halley Griess, Bob Mahaffey, Chris Coleman and Skip Moore.

Those not casting a ballot in Polk County in September: State representatives Ruth Ann Gaines and John Forbes and Gov. Terry Branstad — and 165,808 other eligible voters. …

Dan Stanbrough, who has had his share of woes tied to Des Moines real-estate deals, was sued in Polk County District Court last week by First American Bank. John Gillotti is also a defendant. The suit says American Title Inc. defaulted on a note that matured on Aug. 30, a note guaranteed by the two men and collateralized by stock in American Title. According to filings with the Secretary of State, Stanbrough is president and Gillotti secretary of American Title, which does business as American Abstract & Title Co. The suit lists the unpaid principal balance on the note as $939,691.52. The purpose of the note: “fund distributions to ownership.” …

Update: The Iowa Executive Council last week approved payment of another $5,473.52 to LaMarca & Landry in the Chris Godfrey case. That raises to $483,251.22 the amount the state is paying the firm — which charges up to $375 an hour — to defend it in the discrimination and defamation lawsuit filed by Workers Compensation Commissioner Godfrey. Branstad and his operatives cut Godfrey’s salary by $35,000 — to about $73,500 a year — after the commissioner refused to resign when Branstad took office nearly three years ago. Godfrey, who was first appointed by Gov. Tom Vilsack, has a fixed term and gets high marks in his job, but Branstad apparently is willing to spend anything to get rid of him.

The case is in Polk County district court, but it’s currently in abeyance while the Supreme Court considers one issue that was raised and eligible for immediate appeal. That has not yet been docketed, which means it will be heard in November at the earliest. So the bills will continue to mount.

Oh, perhaps this is relevant: Godfrey is the only openly gay department head in the Branstad administration. …

Second update: Iowa’s nonfarm employment in August totaled 1,518,200, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. That’s down from 1,522,900 for the month of July. Employment is up about 30,000 since Gov. Branstad took office more than 2.5 years ago, promising to create 200,000 jobs in five years. Just 170,000 to go.

In case you’ve forgotten — or maybe in case he’s forgotten — here’s what he said in his 2011 Inaugural address: “To those who say that our goals of 200,000 new jobs and 25 percent increase in family incomes are too high, I say, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Only wrong-headed policy choices can prevent us from entering a golden era in Iowa history.”

According to the Census Bureau, median household income in Iowa in 2010, just before Branstad re-took the governorship, was $50,507. A 25 percent increase would put it at around $63,133. Last year, it was $50,957, up 0.8 percent. Just 24.2 percent, or $12,176, to go.

The Governor was right on one thing: We ain’t seen nothin’ yet. CV

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