By JOHN FORTMEYER
SANDY — With fresh-baked cookies in the kitchen and five kids running energetically around their home and yard, the Klein household here gives every appearance of normalcy.
Even the relaxed, casual style displayed there by Aaron and Melissa Klein conveys a sense of calm, steadiness and confidence.
There’s calm, all right. But a definite storm surrounds that calm, hinted at only by the constantly vibrating cell phone in Aaron’s pocket.
How often has that phone been ringing, he is asked? “Oh, about 30 or 40 times a day,” he said.
The uproar surrounding the Kleins could be described in many ways — legal, moral, emotional, spiritual, relational. Its intensity recently grew almost exponentially as the nation learned the latest in the couple’s ongoing fight for what they believe are basic religious and speech freedoms now being denied to them.
The Kleins are known throughout America for their stance in 2013 when, as owners of the storefront Sweet Cakes by Melissa bakery in Gresham, they turned down — based on their devout Christian beliefs — a request to bake a cake for two women’s same-sex wedding ceremony. Claiming emotional suffering over the bakery’s decision, the women took their case to the state, which held formal hearings and determined that the Kleins had discriminated in violation of state law. The state Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) last month finalized an order directing the Kleins to pay the women $135,000 in damages.
That alone was enough to generate a massive amount of commentary on social media and online news sites. But the fire was stoked even more because the order issued by Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian was accompanied by what the Kleins and many others clearly interpret as an unconstitional gag order, and which has even been criticized by The Oregonian as “bewildering.”
In his mandate, Avakian said the Kleins must not communicate any intent to continue further discrimination. The Kleins take that to mean Avakian doesn’t want them to express their personal beliefs and opinions about the case. But the Kleins have no intention of staying quiet, not only because they insist they have the right to speak out, but also because the issues involved ultimately are so important.
“This is a manifestation of sin battling up against God’s righteousness,” said Aaron, giving a big-picture view of the fight in which they are engaged.
The state agency elicited even more reaction a few days after Avakian’s order when it indicated that it might well place a lien on the Kleins’ home if they didn’t pay the women the $135,000 by mid-July. As of press time for this newspaper, no such lien had apparently been filed, but the very threat was enough to bolster Aaron’s belief that Avakian’s strategy amounts to nothing less than bullying and that the state government is way, way out of line.
A conservative national web site, The Daily Signal, in June raised questions about BOLI’s impartiality on the case when it claimed that various documents showed the state agency has been working in close coordination with the largest LGBT activist group in the state, Basic Rights Oregon.
The state vigorously disputed any allegations of bias, but Aaron is not convinced. “In the state (government) of Oregon there is so much bias, so much corruption,” he said.
Anna Harmon, one of three Oregon attorneys representing the Kleins, told Christian News Northwest that an appeal on Avakian’s order was filed July 17. “That just starts the clock ticking on what will be a very long process,” Harmon said. She added that BOLI also has been asked to hold off enforcing the financial judgment against the Kleins pending appeals, and that a response from the state agency is anticipated within 30 days.
Also garnering big publicity nationally — with delight expressed in some corners and dismay from others — has been the huge response from the Kleins’ supporters, who between various fundraising websites have donated roughly $450,000 toward the couple’s legal costs. Although pressure from the Kleins’ opponents led one site to halt raising funds for them, faith-based site Continue to Give saw more than $300,000 for the Kleins donated within nine days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage in all 50 states.
Continue to Give personnel claimed to have received death threats, but are keeping the fundraiser open.
In a statement to the media, the Kleins said the donations were a huge encouragement: “We are humbled and thankful … The amount shows that Americans all over this country are acting on their beliefs and saying that they do not agree with a government that punishes people for their religious beliefs.”
Because of uncertainty regarding the timing of BOLI’s enforcement, the potential extent of future legal costs and other factors, the Kleins at press time were holding off on making use of the donated funds.
Melissa Klein says her husband is known for steadfastness in his beliefs and a stable, unwavering temperament even under pressure. But she acknowledges that when the controversy first began she had to think through whether their stance was correct.
“The only thing I knew to do was to turn to God’s Word,” she recalled.
When fierce opposition led to a drop in business that forced closure of their storefront and they moved the bakery operation to their home, Melissa also had times of anxiety over their finances.
“But I have complete trust in God now,” she said, smiling. “I have never seen so much blessing in my life as I have since we’ve gone through this.”
Melissa noted that the highly public situation with their family has not had a negative effect on their children, and that their oldest, a 16-year-old daughter, has actually grown much stronger in her walk with Christ.
As the battle has continued, that assurance of God’s presence has deepened and has persuaded the Kleins that they will emerge victorious through Him, she said.
“God’s got this, and God is going to win this fight,” she said.
One charge repeatedly made against the Kleins by their opponents is that their beliefs against the homosexual lifestyle are bigoted and hateful. The Kleins insist, however, that they have no malice toward anyone on the other side of this dispute, nor toward Avakian or anyone else in state government. They say they find it easy to pray for him and for the two women who filed the complaint.
“I’d love to see some people come to the Lord through this,” said Aaron.
Melissa said she actually has felt deep compassion for the women and asked permission to reach out to one of them when depositions in the case were taken as part of the hearings process.
“I hugged her,” she said. “I told her that it wasn’t out of hate that we did what we did, and that I loved her.”
At this point, it is unknown how long the Kleins’ legal battle will continue, and whether it eventually will reach the highest courts in the land or is resolved before then. The couple recalled that before the bakery ever opened in Gresham, and long before it became such a focus of national attention, they had prayed that “God would use the shop in a mighty way.”
They trust that is indeed happening even now.
By JOHN FORTMEYER