DES MOINES, Iowa -- Over 2,500 people gathered at the Iowa Events Center here Friday night to rally for religious liberty -- a fundamental right that the evening’s host, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, warned was in jeopardy.
“There is a war on faith in America today, in our lifetime,” the Republican presidential candidate told the crowd. “Did we ever imagine that in the land of the free and home of the brave, we would be witnessing our government persecute its citizens for their faith?”
The event was briefly interrupted by a group of immigration activists, who were promptly escorted out to the angry chants of “USA, USA.” Cruz, one of the staunchest critics of undocumented immigrants in the crowded GOP field, deftly turned the brief protest into an opportunity to once again express his fidelity to the Constitution. “I respect your First Amendment rights,” Cruz told the protesters.
A number of religious freedom “heroes,” as Cruz referred to them, joined the White House hopeful onstage to share their stories of “persecution.” Most had been sued for denying services to same-sex couples on their wedding days.
Cruz moderated a panel with Dick and Betty Odgaard, an Iowa couple who was sued for refusing to host a same-sex couple’s wedding at their venue, Görtz Haus Gallery, which used to be a church. The couple agreed to a settlement, but decided to stop hosting weddings altogether to avoid any more litigation. Earlier this year, the Odgaards announced they were going out of business.
“We had worked for 13-and-a-half years to build this business and we lived there six days a week. So it was very difficult to close the doors and walk away,” Betty Odgaard said.
Other speakers included a Washington State florist, who refused to provide flowers for a same-sex couple’s wedding; an Atlanta fire chief, who was fired after distributing a self-published book that espoused anti-gay views; and the wife of a Christian pastor, currently imprisoned in Iran.
"On my first day of office, I will instruct the Department of Justice and the IRS and every federal agency that the persecution of religious liberty ends today,” said Cruz to massive applause.
A longtime advocate of religious liberty -- an issue which gained notoriety in recent years with the Supreme Court’s controversial Hobby Lobby ruling and Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) -- Cruz has faced significant criticism for trying to roll back the unprecedented advancements of the gay rights movement. Earlier in the day, actress Ellen Page confronted Cruz at the Iowa State Fair about the potential impact religious liberty legislation could have on the LGBT community.
“In the past during the segregation era or when women were trying to get the right to vote, religious liberty was often used to defend and justify that discrimination,” said Page, who came out as gay last year. “So a lot of people in the LGBT community have fear because of past examples that that’s what’s going to happen.”
Despite that pushback, however, as well as religious freedom’s low-rate of success in legislatures and courtrooms across the country, Cruz clearly views the issue as a critical line to GOP primary voters, many of whom tend to be older, whiter, and more devout. And he’s not alone.
Over the past several weeks, Cruz has methodically courted prominent conservatives throughout crucial primary states, scoring the coveted the endorsement of Iowa radio host Steve Deace on Wednesday. (Deace also appeared at the rally Friday night to moderate a panel.) His plan appears to be to inherit all of the anti-establishment fervor currently surrounding the GOP front-runner Donald Trump once the oft-offending real estate mogul burns out -- a prospect that now seems less of a guarantee than it used to.
On the issue of gay rights, however, Trump is considerably more moderate than his political ally, Cruz. Last weekend, Trump told “Meet The Press” host Chuck Todd that he didn’t think sexual orientation “should be a reason” for letting workers go. The religious freedom movement, by contrast, is widely perceived as an effort to enshrine LGBT discrimination into state and federal law -- not just in the wedding service industry, but in employment, housing, and public accommodations.
While it was clear voters at Friday’s rally cared a great deal about protecting religious freedom, some still seemed on the fence about which candidate to support.
“I definitely like Ted Cruz. I’ve got Bobby Jindal on my mind too,” said 56-year-old Joyce Frappier, while browsing wristbands in the lobby that read “Marriage = 1 man + 1 woman.”
Asked which candidate would best protect religious liberty, 72-year-old Richard Hoffman of Grinnell, Iowa, told msnbc he was torn between Cruz and Trump. “I’d like to have the two of them together,” he joked.