EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is a more expanded version of the story Baptist Press ran Monday (June 17).
WASHINGTON (BP)– Oregon bakers Aaron and Melissa Klein now will wait to see if the U.S. Supreme Court’s insistence they receive a new hearing from a state court will produce a different result in their effort to practice their biblically based beliefs.
The high court rescinded Monday (June 17) a ruling against the Kleins and returned the case to the Oregon Court of Appeals for reconsideration in light of the justices’ 2018 opinion in favor of a Colorado cake artist who refused to design and decorate a cake to celebrate the wedding of two men. In that 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled the Colorado Civil Rights Commission violated the religious free exercise clause of the First Amendment and demonstrated in its action “religious hostility” toward Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop.
The Kleins, who are Christians, declined to design and bake a cake for a lesbian commitment ceremony in 2013 because they believe marriage is only between a man and a woman. In December 2017, the Oregon Court of Appeals upheld a decision by the state’s Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) that the Kleins’ refusal was based on unlawful discrimination against homosexuals. The Oregon Supreme Court refused in 2018 to review the appeals court opinion. The state agency had approved a $135,000 fine against the Kleins, who closed their shop and moved their business to their home.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, expressed gratitude the order “is not a setback for religious liberty. We also hope the court will one day definitively affirm an individual’s right to freedom of conscience.”
“No one, whether acting as a private citizen or business owner, should be forced to violate his or her conscience, even for issues that our culture demands tolerance with no dissent,” Moore said in written comments for Baptist Press. “No individual should be compelled to act in a manner that violates his or her deeply held religious beliefs.”
Kelly Shackelford — president of First Liberty Institute, which is helping represent the Kleins in court — described the order as a victory for the Kleins and for “religious liberty for all Americans.”
“The Constitution protects speech, popular or not, from condemnation by the government,” Shackelford said in a written release. “The message from the Court is clear, government hostility toward religious Americans will not be tolerated.”
The Kleins will be hoping the Oregon court’s judicial reconsideration will turn out differently than that in the case of another wedding vendor in a neighboring state.
The Washington Supreme Court ruled unanimously June 6 that the state’s judicial system did not show religious animosity toward florist Barronelle Stutzman when it concluded she illegally discriminated by declining to design flowers for a same-sex wedding. The court also ruled against her in 2017.
Nearly a year before the order in the Kleins’ case, the Supreme Court annulled the Washington high court’s opinion in Stutzman’s appeal and instructed that court to reconsider their previous decision in light of the justices’ Masterpiece Cakeshop decision.
The Washington Supreme Court, however, ruled neither it nor a lower court exhibited religious hostility toward the florist. The high court reaffirmed its 2017 finding that refusing to provide services for a same-sex wedding comprises sexual orientation discrimination.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which represents Stutzman in the case, said the Washington high court applied the U.S. Supreme Court’s instructions too narrowly. Stutzman’s contention that state Attorney General Bob Ferguson demonstrated hostility toward religion in his suit against her was the reason the U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to the Washington court, according to ADF. Ferguson not only initiated the state’s suit against Stutzman’s business but sued her personally, threatening all of her assets, according to ADF.
The Kleins’ case began when Aaron — who co-owned with his wife Sweet Cakes by Melissa in Gresham, Ore. — declined a request by Laurel Bowman for a cake for her ceremony with Rachel Cryer. The Kleins were willing to serve gays and lesbians, they said, but believed their Christian faith prevented them from providing a cake for a same-sex ceremony. Bowman and Cryer had a commitment ceremony in 2013 and a wedding in 2014 after same-sex marriage became legal in Oregon.
In its opinion, a three-judge panel of the Oregon Court of Appeals concluded the Kleins’ denial of service to Bowman and Cryer was “on account of” the lesbian couple’s sexual orientation under state law. The BOLI did not “impermissibly burden” either the Kleins’ free expression rights or their freedom of religion protected by the First Amendment, the judges said.
The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which represents the same-sex couple, expressed disappointment in the Supreme Court order. Lambda Legal Senior Counsel Jennifer Pizer, however, voiced confidence that, as in Stutzman’s case, the Oregon court “will again confirm that this discrimination case has been handled fairly and justly, precisely as Oregon law and the U.S. Constitution require.”
State laws and court rulings — and especially the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 legalization of gay marriage — have brought intense pressure on Christians and other people of faith who affirm the biblical view of marriage. This has been especially true in the wedding business, where florists, cake designers, photographers and others have been sued for declining to use their talents for same-sex weddings.
The case is Klein v. Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries.