Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is placing the debate over "religious freedom" front and center of his Republican presidential campaign with the release of a new campaign video Tuesday highlighting the "incredible journey" of an Iowa couple who refused to host a gay marriage in their church.
Dick and Betty Odgaard own and operate a bistro inside a converted church in Grimes, Iowa. The Christian couple began renting out the space as a full service wedding venue in 2008. In the video, Cruz and the Odgaards fondly reminisce about all the beautiful weddings the venue hosted -- back before a gay couple asked to rent the space in 2013 and put an end to the festivities.
The Odgaards informed the gay couple that they did not wish to host a wedding that was contrary to their faith. The next day, the couple filed a lawsuit against the venue, and news of the dispute went viral.
"It was devastating to be told that we were bigots," Betty Odgaard told Cruz. "I just kept thinking, they don't know us. They don't know what's in our hearts. We have no hatred toward gay people."
Iowa legalized gay marriage in 2009 and added sexual orientation and gender identity protections to its civil rights code in 2007, making it illegal for public businesses to decline service to individuals on the basis of their sexuality.
The Odgaards settled with the couple, paying them $5,000 and agreeing to stop discriminating against same-sex couples. Barred by their faith from participating in gay weddings, the Odgaards were forced to stop hosting weddings altogether, rendering their business unsustainable. The bistro plans to close by the end of August.
"Your story inspires me, and inspires millions of believers," Cruz informs the couple in the video. "Believers of many faiths in this country who want to live in a land where we're free to live according to our faith and our convictions and it's not second-guessed by the government saying we don't share your faith and we're going to shut you down."
The video closes by inviting supporters to attend a "Rally for Religious Liberty" on Aug. 21 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Following the Supreme Court's ruling legalizing same-sex marriage last month, the Republican presidential field has been split between those calling for drastic measures to overturn the decision -- either with a constitutional amendment or by nullification -- and those arguing that the ruling must be accepted and attention focused on protecting the religious liberty of conservative Christians in a country where gays have a legal right to marry.
Cruz was one of the most vocal members of the former camp, arguing for an amendment that would restore states' authority over marriage laws, and calling for Supreme Court justices to face elections.
But in his video with the Odgaards, Cruz focuses on protecting the rights of Christian business owners rather than on denying same-sex couples the right to have their unions recognized by the state.
Of course Cruz, like every other member of the Republican field, would prefer if gay marriages were legally prohibited. But his shift in focus may be an indication of how the terms of the gay marriage debate have continued to shift in the weeks following the high court's historic ruling.