SALEM — According to First Liberty Institute, a legal rights organization focused on religious freedom issues, the big question now regarding the long-running Sweet Cakes by Melissa case is this —will Oregon courts openly defy the U.S. Supreme Court?
Last month, the most recent step toward answering that question took place at the Oregon Court of Appeals in Salem.
On Jan. 9, the appeals court again heard oral arguments in the case of Aaron and Melissa Klein, who formerly owned and operated Sweet Cakes by Melissa bakery in Gresham. Devout Christians, the Kleins have received national attention ever since their faith-motivated refusal seven years ago to make cakes for same-sex weddings. They ultimately had to close their bakery because of the resulting controversy.
“We welcomed and served everyone in our bakery, but we could not endorse all messages,” said Melissa Klein. “We lost everything we loved and worked so hard to build. Our hope is that maybe someday we can, once again, reopen our bakery and serve everyone without being forced to celebrate events that conflict with our religious beliefs.”
The U.S. Supreme Court in June ordered an Oregon court to reconsider the Sweet Cakes by Melissa case; the High Court vacated a 2017 Oregon Court of Appeals ruling against the Kleins.
A total $135,000 in damages was imposed on the Kleins by the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) in 2015 after an administrative law judge for the agency and also Brad Avakian, then BOLI commissioner, found the Kleins’ bakery business had violated a state anti-discrimination law. With the help of thousands nationally in a crowdfunding effort that raised more than $500,000 for them, the Kleins paid the damages, but the money is in an escrow account pending conclusion of appeals.
According to Texas-based First Liberty Institute, which is representing the Kleins, the Oregon appeals court must review the Kleins’ case in light of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2018 in favor of Colorado Christian baker Jack Phillips. The High Court ruled 7-2 for Phillips on the narrow grounds that the Colorado state government exhibited hostility to his faith when it punished him for refusing to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.
In the Kleins’ case, their attorneys argued that Avakian abandoned the constitutional requirements of neutrality, tolerance and respect when, before their case even came before him, he spoke dismissively of the Kleins’ religious objections.
During last month’s hearing, attorneys for each side each had 30 minutes to address the three-judge panel and answer questions. Adam Gustafson, the lawyer for the Kleins, contended that the appeals court should reverse Avakian’s ruling because of his hostility toward the Kleins’ faith. Carson Whitehead, the attorney representing BOLI, urged the judges to reaffirm the court’s determination that the Kleins had broken the law and that the amount of damages assessed against them was lawful.
Sitting several feet away from the Kleins during the hearing were Rachel and Laurel Bowman-Cryer, the same-sex couple who made the initial complaint about the bakery owners seven years ago. The Bowman-Cryers have contended since then that they have suffered great emotional damage because of the Kleins’ refusal to bake a cake for their wedding.
In a statement after last month’s hearing, Kelly Shackelford of First Liberty Institute pledged to take the case back to the nation’s highest court, should the Oregon court again rule against the Kleins.
“You can be sure we will return to the Supreme Court to pursue ultimate justice for Melissa if they do,” Shackelford stated.