WASHINGTON — Although it is by no means the end of their battle over religious freedoms, Oregon’s Aaron and Melissa Klein last month received what their legal representatives termed a “sweet decision” from the U.S. Supreme Court.
Although declining at this point to hear the Kleins’ case, the High Court on June 17 also vacated a 2015 Oregon Court of Appeals ruling aginst the Kleins, owners of Sweet Cakes by Me-lissa bakery, and or-dered the state appellate court to reconsider the case.
A total $135,000 in damages was imposed on the Kleins by the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries in 2015 after the agency found their business had violated a state anti-discrimination law.
The Kleins had previously exhausted their appeals in Oregon when the state Supreme Court in 2018 declined to hear the case. However, the U.S. Supreme Court’s order revives the case.
“… We will have an opportunity to fight once again and affirm that the Constitution protects the free speech and religious expression for all Americans, and that they can live out their faith without condemnation from the government,” First Liberty Institute, the Washington, D.C. legal rights agency representing the Kleins, said in a press statement following the June 17 Supreme Court action.
The Kleins experienced major financial losses from the nationally publicized controversy and also were targeted with hate mail, harassment and threats, and eventually were forced to close their storefront location in Gresham and later the business, which had moved to their Sandy-area home.
According to First Liberty Institute, the state court now must review the case in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last year in favor of Colorado baker Jack Phillips.
The High Court ruled 7-2 for Phillips on the narrow grounds that the Colorado state government exhibited hostility to his Christian faith when it punished him for refusing to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.
The Oregon case began in 2013 when Rachel and Laurel Bowman-Cryer were preparing to marry. They complained to the state after the Kleins, citing their beliefs as Christians, politely declined to make the same-sex couple a wedding cake.
Claiming that they suffered deep emotional distress as a result, the Bowman-Cryers eventually were awarded $135,000 in damages by Brad Avakian, then the state labor commissioner, after the case was considered by an administrative law judge for Avakian’s agency.
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 has been in an escrow account pending conclusion of appeals.
The lawyers for the Kleins last October asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case. They said it needed to be heard because the Colorado ruling left unanswered the central question: whether the government can force business owners to create a message contrary to their religious beliefs.
Some Christian or conservative commentators contend that the kind of hostility shown by Colorado authorities toward Phillips’ views also was evident in the Kleins’ case. They say Avakian demonstrated a hatred for the Kleins’ personal beliefs through his public comments on social media and in media interviews.
The state appellate court, however, found that Avakian’s order did not violate the Kleins’ free speech rights because it required they comply with “a neutral law.” That court also found no evidence that the state targeted the Kleins because of their religious beliefs.