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Religious Tolerance logo

The religious freedom to discriminate against others:

Iowa couple goes out of the wedding business,
then opens a non-profit, and erects billboards.

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U.S. map with Iowa highlighted 2015-OCT: Couple goes out of marriage business, and launches a non-profit group:

Betty and Dick Odgaard of Grimes , IA are Mennonites. This is an Anabaptist denomination, known for their commitment to pacifism, and for the Mennonite Disaster Services which provides relief to people around the world whose lives are disrupted by hurricanes, floods, etc. Some Mennonite congregations identify as LGBT affirming; of these, some have been expelled from their regional conferences for their position on sexual minorities. Others have been downgraded to "associate" or "affiliate" status.

During 2002, the Odgaards purchased a church in their town which was about to be demolished. They converted the building into the Görtz Haus Gallery a:

"... one-stop wedding venue, [art] gallery, restaurant, and flower shop ..." 1

The couple organized weddings in the former church sanctuary several times a year.

During 2006, six same-sex couples were denied marriage licenses by the Polk County recorder's office. They launched a lawsuit "Varnum vs. Brien," seeking permission to marry from their county court.

During 2007, one same-sex couple was able to marry during a short interval between the ruling by Polk County Judge Robert Hanson which favored marriage equality, and a subsequent stay of that ruling. Their marriage was the only recognized marriage by a same-sex couple in Iowa for two years.

During early 2009, by an unanimous ruling, the Iowa Supreme Court legalized gay marriage throughout Iowa. 2 The state became the fourth jurisdiction in the U.S. to attain marriage equality, following Massachusetts, California, and Connecticut. This made a confrontation between a same-sex engaged couple and religious conservative(s) -- either a county clerk or the owner(s) of a wedding venue -- very likely.

During 2013, the owners of Görtz Haus Gallery were faced with a major decision. 7 An engaged same-sex couple, Lee Stafford and Jared Ellars, had approached the Odgaards, and asked to hold their wedding at their Gallery.

Details are lacking in media reports. However, it appears that they were faced with a conflicting needs:

On one hand:

  • The Iowa human rights legislation outlaws discrimination on the basis of either a customer's sexual orientation or their gender identity. Since the Odgaards operated a public accommodation -- a for-profit business set up to serve the general public -- the law requires them to serve engaged couples equally, whether they are of the same or opposite sex.

  • Christ commanded his followers to try to meet the needs of others. Years ago, when the Odgaards approached another marriage venue to arrange their own marriage service, they would certainly have expected to be accepted as customers. Jesus commands, currently called the Golden Rule -- a.k.a. Ethic of Reciprocity -- requires them to reciprocate when their potential customers ask them for services. It is a rule of behavior taught by all of the world's major religions.
    • In Matthew 7:12, Jesus is recorded as saying: "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets." 3

    • In Luke 6:31, he is recorded as repeating the same message: "And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." 3

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On the other hand,

  • Both Betty and Dick Odgaard are sincere conservative Christians who apparently interpret the seven or so "clobber passages" in the Bible in Genesis, Leviticus, Jude, Romans, 1 Corinthians, and 1 Timothy as condemning both same-sex marriage and same-gender sexual activity. If they had been religious liberals or secularists, they would probably have interpreted the same passages in their original Hebrew or Greek as being silent on same-sex marriage and unrelated to consensual same-sex behavior by lesbians, gays or bisexuals.

  • The King James Version of the Bible translates the original Greek in one of the "clobber" passages -- 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 -- as:

    "Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators nor ... abusers of themselves with mankind shall inherit the kingdom of God." 3

    Other English translations of the Bible interpret the original Greek in this passage as referring to homosexuals, while still others interpret it as referring to men who sexually abuse boys, and the boys they abuse. The store owners may have interpreted the passage as referring to lesbians and gays and have have felt that they could not ethically facilitate any activity -- like marriage -- which would make certain that their customers would not "inherit the kingdom of God." That is, same-sex married couples would be sent to Hell after death.

The store owners decided to no longer provide a marriage venue for any couples, whether they be of the same gender or opposite genders. Unfortunately, this reduced their store income. That, plus the general loss of business due to the negative publicity associated with their refusal made it financially impossible for them to continue operating. One of the owners said:

“Our [legal] case had everything to do with our closing. Once we could no longer host weddings it was only a matter of time. The lunch business had already decreased substantially due to boycotts and all the slander and black eye now on Görtz Haus."

They closed their business. It is scheduled to reopen as the Harvest Bible Church on Sunday 2015-NOV-01.

Betty Odgaard said:

"If it can’t be a gallery anymore, this is the next best thing. We’re pretty tickled." 1

The couple has started up a non-profit company called "God's Original Design Ministry." The home page of their web site states:

"This ministry was established to advance Christian teachings, Biblical [sic] ordinances and natural laws as God intended. This ministry also provides a platform for God-fearing people to stand tall  & proud in defense of God's Original Design, and to give a voice to the 'silent majority'." 4

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Webmaster's comment:

God's "original design" apparently refers to the restriction of marriage to one woman and one man, thereby excluding same-sex couples.

Their reference to "silent majority" apparently refers to those American adults who are opposed to marriage equality. This appears to be an error. Multiple public opinion polls have shown that the percentage of Americans favoring marriage equality is currently in excess of 60% and is growing." 38% -- those adults who are either opposed to gay marriage or have no opinion -- does not a majority make.

Some years ago, our group held a pilot study to determine the will of God on same-sex marriage . We obtained the cooperation of about 80 visitors to our web site, all of whom had an active prayer life. Each agreed to pray to assess the will of God on gay marriage. We were surprised at the results:

  • 100% of those who entered the survey, who opposed same-sex marriage, and felt that they had assess God's will, found that God agreed with them. He is also opposed marriage equality.

  • 100% of those who entered the survey, who supported same-sex marriage, and felt that they had assess God's will, found that God agreed with them. He also favors marriage equality.

We concluded that prayer is not a reliable way to determine the will of God, at least on this topic. More details.

On two occasions, we have read accounts of denominational meetings which confirm the findings of our pilot study. The faith groups were trying to hold a vote on whether to change their rules and both recognize and perform gay marriages. The result was a deep split among the delegates, and intense debate. The moderator asked for a time out and instructed the delegates to go to a quite space, pray, and assess the will of God. They did this, and returned to the debate. However, few if any had changed their minds. After praying to God for guidance, they appeared to believe that God supported their position.

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Activities of the Odgaards' non-profit group:

The main function of their ministry is to display billboard messages at various locations around the United States Their first one was leased on US 69/76 about five miles South of Durant OK. The caption reads, allegedly in God's words, "Please...I need your help with this! - God."

Their associated facebook page contains a photograph of their second billboard, near Eloy, AZ. It has the message: "God will be the final judge!"

Billboard 5

They have leased a third billboard in Durant, OK. It is similar to the picture above, except that the text message is the same as in the original billboard: "Please...I need your help with this! - God. That appears to be an attack on one of the main attributes of God: his omnipotence. 5,8

Their goal is to eventually have 1,000 such signs scattered across the nation.

Although the billboard obviously carries an anti-equality message, it it true on one point. In excess of 90% of marriages in the United States will continue to be formed by one woman and one man. Same-sex married couples will forever remain a minority because lesbians, gays and bisexuals are themselves a small minority.

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Visitors' reviews of their non-profit's facebook page:

As of 2015-OCT-29, their facebook page has 228 visitor reviews: 37 visitors gave the page a rating of 5 stars (the highest); 183 gave a 1 star rating (the lowest). There were a very few ratings of 2, 3, or 4 stars. The overall rating is 1.7 out of 5 stars.

Some typical five star reviews:

  • Particia Guinn: "It is about time we stood up for our God, He deserves our time and commitment for His Son gave His life for us. We should stand tall and firm and ready to give our very lives for Him. I for one am tired of the ugly words and twisted thoughts being thrown at Him. He is an Awesome God and I will fight for Him anytime."

  • Robert Smith: "I think People are confused on "SIN" ... and "Living a Life of SIN" ... Of course Its not anyone's place to "Judge" but its everyone's place to point out and help those Living a Life of Sin... We All fall Short of Gods Glory... Great Job!!"

  • Teddy Cat quoted passages from Matthew 19 and Genesis 2: 4 "Jesus said: 'Haven’t you read,' he replied, 'that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

    [In} Genesis ... which Jesus refers to, 23 "The man said,... 'This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.”
    24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh'.

Some typical one star reviews:

  • : "I find it infuriating that that you would sign a bill board as if God had written it. You don't speak for God anymore than the church did [when] it found Galileo of 'vehemently suspect of heresy', sentencing him to indefinite imprisonment. Galileo was kept under house arrest until his death. (By the way he was correct). Realize you are being bigoted and your view will soon be outdated. Just like those who hid behind the Bible when it came to slavery and race. I may not agree with you but I would have respected you if you just said you don't think gay people should be able to marry. If you didn't act as if you spoke for God and your 'ministry' you would have no voice. It's sad so many people have been on the wrong side of history and used the Bible to incorrectly justify a belief."

  • : "I am straight and am a proud mom of a gay child. How dare you judge anyone for who they love. I am sickened by how hateful some Christians are. Do you really have that much time on your hands to hate people for something they did not choose. You can't choose who you love but you can choose who to hate. Christians like you make even more proud that my child has more love in their pinky than your whole heart. You also make me more proud to be a Wiccan and also reassure my decision on leaving the Christian religion.

  • : You sad sad people. 5000 "gods" worshipped around the world and you choose the one that somehow told you to go put signs like this up by the road. And The only one you have up is in Oklahoma! Try putting one of those near New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, or any other city where people actually have minds that work and that s..t would be torn down in an hour."

[Some typos, spelling, and other errors were corrected in order to improve clarity. Hyperlinks were not in the original.]

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On their web site, they recommend that visitors print out one of a group of six flyers and place them on every car windshield at their church. One is:

flyer 6

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Billy Hallowell, "Wedding Venue Was Forced to Close After Furor Over Refusal to Host Gay Ceremony — but Here’s What Has Left Former Owners Feeling ‘Pretty Tickled’," The Blaze, 2015-OCT-28, at:
  2. Jeff Eckhoff & Grant Schulte, "Unanimous ruling: Iowa marriage no longer limited to one man, one woman," The Des Moines Register, 2009-APR-03, at:
  3. From the King James Version of the Bible.
  4. The home page of God's Original Design Ministry is at:
  5. From God's Original Design Ministry facebook page at:
  6. "Take Action Now," God's Original Design Ministry, at:
  7. "Odgaard v. Iowa (2013-2014)," The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, 2013, at:
  8. Samantha Cowan "A Thousand Points of Hate: Couple Plans Massive Series of Anti–Gay Marriage Billboards," TakePart, 2015-AUG-01, at:

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Copyright © 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2015-OCT-29
Latest update : 2015-OCT-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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