GRESHAM — Seven months after a business decision here by a Christian couple sparked national attention, that decision is now being officially challenged at the state level.
A same-sex couple has filed an anti-discrimination complaint with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) against a Gresham bakery, Sweet Cakes by Melissa, for allegedly refusing service based on sexual orientation.
The state agency will now conduct an investigation to determine if the business violated the Oregon Equality Act of 2007 protecting the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender Oregonians in employment, housing and public places.
Under Oregon law, Oregonians cannot be denied service based on sexual orientation. The law provides an exemption for religious organizations and schools, but does not allow private business owner to discriminate based on sexual orientation, just as they cannot legally deny service based on race, sex, age, veteran status, disability or religion.
“We are committed to a fair and thorough investigation to determine whether there’s substantial evidence of unlawful discrimination,” said state Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian.
Under state law, the agency must complete its investigation within one year. If investigators find substantial evidence, the bureau may bring formal charges if parties cannot reach a settlment through conciliation. The case then moves to BOLI’s Administrative Prosecution Unit, where an administrative law judge would hear the case. Any proposed order would then be made to Avakian.
As labor commissioner, Avakian can issue cease and desist orders, award both economic and non-economic damages and assess civil penalties for violations of civil rights law.
Aaron and Melissa Klein own the bakery at 44 N. Division St. Klein explained earlier this year that even though the shop has gay customers among its clientele and always treats them respectfully, he politely declined Jan. 17 to make a wedding cake for Laurel Bowman and Rachel Cryer.
Klein cited his and his wife’s biblical belief that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. The Kleins also maintain that the U.S. Constitution protects them from being forced to participate in something that violates their conscience and religious beliefs.
Melissa Klein told The Oregonian that the complaint was delivered to the bakery on Aug. 13. She said the filing had been expected because Brown and Cryer had initially made an inquiry to the state attorney general’s office.
When the controversy first became public in February, the bakery saw an initial surge of support. People came from throughout the Northwest to show their agreement with the Kleins through their purchases of baked goods.
However, the Kleins overall have seen a substantial income drop from the business. They also have received e-mails, phone calls and Facebook messages from throughout the nation from people who see their decision as discriminatory, hateful or both. Many death threats have also come.
But Avakian also came under fire from commentators across the nation for stating in response to the complaint that his agency’s goal “was never to shut down a business. The goal is to rehabilitate.”
“To say that this couple needs to be rehabilitated for believing and practicing the values on which this nation was founded is entirely beyond the pale,” said Tim Wildmon, president of Mississippi-based American Family Association, who called for Avakian’s resignation. “This sounds like Stalinist Russia or China under Mao…”
The Kleins are longtime members of Lynchwood Church of God in Portland and say the support coming their way includes their pastor and church family, but that even in their congregation some oppose the bakery’s decision.
Nevertheless, Aaron Klein said he isn’t hesitant to take a stand for traditional, biblical values and is willing to even take the fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
A similar controversy erupted earlier this year with another Northwest business. Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland, Wash., is being sued by both the American Civil Liberties Union and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson over her refusal to sell flowers for a same-sex wedding because of her religious beliefs. Ferguson received no complaint about the florist but acted based upon information he saw on Facebook.
Stutzman’s attorney says the shop has catered to all patrons, including homosexuals, for many years and has even had openly gay employees, but that Stutzman’s conscience objection specifically deals with gay marriage because providing the flowers would require her participatioon in a ceremony that violates her faith.
In May, Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing Stutzman filed a countersuit against Ferguson. The countersuit contends that the state constitution protects freedom of conscience “in all matters of religious sentiment, belief and worship.”