GRESHAM — A recent federal appeals court ruling favoring a Minnesota couple could ultimately help former Gresham bakery owners Aaron and Melissa Klein in their legal battle for religious freedom, according to their attorneys.
Texas-based First Liberty Institute, a religious liberty legal rights organization representing the Kleins, said the case of cinematogaphers Carl and Angel Larsen of St. Cloud, Minn., raised many of the fundamental facts and legal issues surrounding the Kleins’ former business, Sweet Cakes by Melissa.
The Larsens hoped to enter the wedding filming business, but Minnesota officials and state law demand that if the Larsens make films celebrating marriage of one man and one woman, then they must do the same for same-sex marriages.
The Larsens, who are devout Christians, say that would cause them to violate their religious beliefs. If they chose to pursue wedding film work but didn’t comply with the state’s laws, they faced having to pay a civil penalty, triple compensatory damages, punitive damages up to $25,000 and up to 90 days in jail.
Challenging those laws, the Larsens sued the state in 2016; they are represented by another religious freedom legal rights organization, Alliance Defending Freedom.
The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, Mo., on Aug. 23 affirmed that the Larsens’ wedding videos are protected by the First Amendment. The court specifically said the state can’t force the Larsens to violate their religious convictions.
That ruling definitely caught the attention of those representing the Kleins, also devout Christians who got national attention in 2013 for their own faith-motivated refusal to make cakes for same-sex weddings and who ultimately had to close their bakery because of the resulting controversy.
“While the 8th Circuit doesn’t include Oregon, the recent decision is still a sign of hope for a final victory and the vindication of Melissa Klein’s rights,” stated Jared Besse of First Liberty Institute. “Certainly a win for (the Larsens) sets an important precedent for millions of independent business owners. It’s also evidence that the legal landscape in our country may be shifting toward a new chapter in our history when Americans no longer have to fear losing their job, or their business, for simply living out their faith.”.
The U.S. Supreme Court in June ordered an Oregon court to reconsider the Sweet Cakes by Melissa case; the High Court vacated a 2015 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 in 2015 after the agency found their 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 First Liberty Institute, the Oregon appeals court must review the Kleins’ case in light of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year in favor of Colorado Christian baker Jack Phillips. The High Court ruled 7-2 for Phillips on the narrow grounds that the Coloradostate government exhibited hostility to his faith when it punished him for refusing to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.