Iowa wedding venue at the center of gay marriage dispute sold; reopens as a church

by Tobin Perry |

(The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty/Screen Shot)Betty and Richard, a Mennonite couple, owned and operated the Görtz Haus Gallery, a 77-year-old-church-building-turned-art gallery. After declining a request to plan, facilitate, and host a ceremony that ran counter to their beliefs, they were punished by the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. They sold their building to Harvest Bible Church, and are now members.

GRIMES, Iowa (Christian Examiner)—A building that once housed an Iowa gift shop and bistro at the center of a religious liberty battle reopened earlier this month—as a church.

After the owners of the former Gautz Haus Gallery in Grimes, Iowa, sold the building to their church, Harvest Bible Chapel, last summer, the pastor says the new space has already spurred growth in the brief time they've owned it.

"We've grown significantly in the last few weeks because of the building," Ryan Jorgenson, the church's pastor, told the Christian Examiner. "A building isn't everything, but the right building is a lot."

In the past two years the church has met in a variety of locations yet has never been able to put up permanent signage to let people know about the church. The church also no longer has to tear down and set up its worship space each week. The congregation bought the property in July and spent September and October renovating it. The first worship service was held at the venue on Nov. 1.

According to Jorgenson, the church will once again be able to host weddings, too – between one man and one woman.

FORMER OWNERS JOIN THE CHURCH

"When people look at this story, I hope that all of us as Americans remember our religious liberties that this country was founded on," Jorgenson told Des Moines' WHO-TV. "I'd like to see our church be used as an example to Christians in America, and really around the world, that we support one another, and we're going to stand for Jesus and his definition of marriage."

The gallery had been closed after the owners, Dick and Betty Odgaard, who come from a Mennonite background, refused to hold a same-sex wedding in their establishment. Lee Stafford and Jared Ellers, a same-sex couple, filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.

Last December the Odgaards were forced to pay a settlement of $5,000 and told they could not deny a same-sex wedding request again. After that, the couple decided to no longer host any weddings at the gallery. The loss of wedding business—a major part of their previous revenue— caused the gallery to close last summer.

The Odgaards have attended Harvest Bible Chapel since early 2015 when Jorgenson first approached the couple about renting the property. When they discovered that the pastor planned to preach about what the Bible teaches about homosexuality the next Sunday, the couple decided to give the church a try.

"We thought we needed to come and hear how he handles that subject because not many pastors do," Betty Odgaard told the Christian Examiner. "Because of our situation, this really perked up our ears."

It will be a place of hope for the community. The community will see that we have not let the truth of the gospel die with the business. The mission field will be right here, and the church will be used [to reach it].
- Betty Odgaard

Jorgenson moved his family to the northwest suburb of Des Moines to start the church because God specifically called him to start one there. He says he was praying one night when God brought the city of Des Moines to his mind despite the fact that he had never been there. A week later, leaders at Bible Harvest Fellowship, a Chicago-based church planting network where he was being trained, suggested the Iowa capital to him.

Jorgenson soon discovered that the Des Moines area was both growing quickly and had many residents who didn't have a relationship with Christ. The church has grown steadily since its launch two years ago. Recently, it has been averaging around 250 people in attendance. The pastor foresees a time when the church will outgrow the new space, but it works well now.

"This building is not a large building," Jorgenson said. "For instance, from day one we were already starting with two services. But we have room to grow now. With two services, we have room to grow a couple of hundred more people, along with kids."

Odgaard calls the decision to sell the property to her church "bittersweet." She says it has been devastating to not have the business anymore. Still she is glad to know that the building will be used again—and that she'll be able to worship there each weekend.

"It will be a place of hope for the community," Odgaard said. "The community will see that we have not let the truth of the gospel die with the business. The mission field will be right here, and the church will be used [to reach it]."

After their gallery closed last summer, the Odgaards started a ministry—called God's Original Design Ministries— to promote the biblical view of marriage through billboards. In just a few days, the ministry will purchase its third such billboard, in North Carolina. A fourth one, Odgaard says, is on the way, too. The ministry has a goal of purchasing more than 1,000 such billboards throughout the United States.

"People have really responded to that across the country," Odgaard said. "That's why we've been able to purchase the three billboards."

For more information on God's Original Design Ministries, visit www.gods-design.org.