The Courageous 6 Award Recipient: Chris Godfrey (2020)
The Courageous 6 Award is one of three awards recognized at the One Iowa Gala. Named after the six plaintiffs in the Varnum v. Brien marriage equality case in Iowa, the award goes to an Iowan who had the courage to stand up and speak out against inequality in the LGBTQ community.
This years recipient, Chris Godfrey, stood up against LGBTQ+ discrimination in the workplace and risked everything to stand up for himself and the greater LGBTQ+ community.
In January 2006, Godfrey was appointed by Governor Tom Vilsack to the position of Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner, a quasi-judicial appellate position which issues final agency decisions in contested workers’ compensation cases. The nomination was to fill a partial term of the prior commissioner who had retired. Continuing to serve in the position required confirmation by the Iowa Senate. Facing a whisper campaign in the state Senate due to his sexual orientation, his nomination was tenuous. He was unanimously confirmed to a full six year term of office in April 2009.
A year later, incoming Governor Terry Branstad asked for Godfrey’s resignation because he was “not on our team.” When he declined the request, claiming the position was quasi-judicial and intended to be nonpartisan, he faced an ongoing campaign of retaliation and abusive treatment at the hands of state officials.
In July 2011, the Branstad administration again asked for his resignation, and when he refused it, he was retaliated against by reducing his wages from his salary at the top of the pay scale to the lowest possible amount for the position under state law. Following continued discrimination and a pattern of retaliatory actions, he brought suit under the state civil rights act and for claims under the Iowa constitution. The lawsuit twice went before the Iowa Supreme Court and twice Godfrey’s legal counsel Roxanne Barton Conlin won ground-breaking decisions. On July 15, 2019, following a more than month-long trial, Godfrey was successful in his lawsuit against the state of Iowa and the Branstad administration.
The decision was historic as it guarantees citizens in the state of Iowa can enforce their constitutional rights, including equal treatment under the law and due process, against state actors such as a Governor. The “Godfrey II” action more specifically allows claims which can hold a state official and the state liable for monetary damages if they act with impunity or malice against Iowa’s citizens. This is an important check on abuses of power at every level of state government, including city officials, school districts, prison officials, and others.
By standing up for himself, and risking his career in the process, Godfrey was able to show that workplace discrimination against LGBTQ+ Iowans is unlawful and set an important precedent against employers acting out against their queer employees.