By JOHN FORTMEYER, CNNW publisher
SALEM — A Christian couple from Sandy recently lost a significant battle in their protracted legal war with Oregon government over a controversial business decision they made almost five years ago.
The Oregon Court of Appeals on Dec. 28 upheld Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian’s 2015 ruling that Melissa and Aaron Klein, who formerly operated a Gresham bakery, must pay a lesbian couple $135,000 for whom the bakers refused to make a wedding cake.
First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based religious freedom law firm representing the Kleins, expressed disappointment with the ruling and said it was contemplating the next step.
“Appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court is definitely an option we are considering,” Mike Berry, an attorney with First Liberty Institute, stated in an email to Christian News Northwest. “We wil discuss all options with our clients and pursue what is in their best interests.”
As to whether a pending U.S. Supreme Court decision on a similar case involving the Christian-owned Masterpiece Bake Shop in Colorado could affect the Oregon case, Berry said it might. “Possibly, but it would depend on how broad a ruling the Supreme Court issued,” Berry stated.
Both the Colorado baker, Jack Philllips, and the Kleins contend cake decorating is artistic expression that merits greater state and federal free speech protections than the sales of other goods and services.
Writing for the three-judge state panel, Judge Chris Garrett stated that Avakian’s order does not violate the Kleins’ free speech rights because it requires that they comply with “a neutral law.” Garrett also wrote that there was no evidence that the state targeted the Kleins because of their religious beliefs.
Although the Oregon appeals panel unanimously rejected the Kleins’ argument that their religious rights as business owners were violated, The Oregonian noted in an editorial that the Kleins did prevail on one key point in their legal challenge. The appeals court reversed Avakian’s ruling that some of the Kleins’ comments in media interviews and in a sign on the store window constituted a threat to continue discriminating against same-sex couples. According to the newspaper, Avakian overzealously distorted and misrepresented the Kleins’ words, taking them out of context so as to find their speech unlawful.
Although reversing Avakian on that one point, the appeals court nonetheless sided overall with Avakian against what The Oregonian labeled the Kleins’ “homophobic” action as owners of the Sweet Cakes by Melissa bakery.
The Kleins made national news when they declined to make the cake for Rachel and Laurel Bowman-Cryer; the resulting loss of business, death threats and more forced them eventually to close the bakery.
Nancy Marcus, senior attorney at Lambda Law, a national pro-LGBT rights group, told The Oregonian the appeals court ruling was not surprising because it aligns with courts in other states that have not allowed business exemptions from anti-discrimination laws.
Donors nationally gave the Kleins more than $500,000 toward their legal fees. The Kleins paid the $135,000 damage award for alleged emotional and mental distress to the Bowman-Cryers, who said they also have been targeted with hate because of the controversial case, but the money is locked in an escrow account pending appeals.