A Christian couple has been fined more than their life savings and told to keep silent on their faith-based practice merely because they hurt a woman’s feelings. After the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, this case gives us a blueprint of how the left will pursue its battle against free speech and religious liberty, in the name of defending LGBT rights and sensibilities.
Aaron and Melissa Klein, owners of Oregon bakery “Sweet Cakes by Melissa,” were ordered by Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) to pay a $135,000 fine to a gay couple for refusing to bake their wedding cake. As The Christian Post’s Napp Nazworth reported, “A fine that large would force the Kleins to sell their home and wipe out their life savings.”
Worse, the order also tried to limit what the Kleins could even say about their business and their faith. Debates over whether this is a “gag order” aside, the ruling restricts the Klein’s freedom to run their business according to their consciences, and to defend their position in public.
Harsh Rulings and “Mental Rape”
It all started in January 2013, when Rachel Cryer and her mother visited “Sweet Cakes” to order a wedding cake. According to Rachel’s testimony, she was “mentally raped” by the baker’s response.
When Aaron Klein heard there would be two brides, he apologized for “wasting your time,” and told his potential customers, “we do not do cakes for same-sex weddings.” Klein said that was the end of the matter, but Rachel’s mother alleged he cited Leviticus, calling the gay couple “abominations unto the lord.”
This denial emotionally devastated both Rachel and her fiance Laurel Bowman, according to the ruling. “In addition to other emotional responses, RBC (Rachel Bowman-Cryer) described that being raised a Christian in the Southern Baptist Church, (Aaron Klein’s) denial of service made her feel as if God made a mistake when he made her, that she wasn’t supposed to be, that she wasn’t supposed to love or be loved, have a family, or go to heaven.”
Laurel – who was not present for the encounter – was also reportedly devastated. “LBC (Laurel Bowman-Cryer) who was raised Catholic, interpreted the denial to represent that she was not a creature created by god, not created with a soul and unworthy of holy love and life.”
Both of these responses took Klein’s short business denial as a personal and religious slight against them – one so deep that it made them question whether or not they should exist at all. While this may seem downright crazy to some, Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian wrote that “these are the reasonable and very real responses to not being allowed to participate in society like everyone else.”
Rachel and Laurel had previously bought a cake from “Sweet Cakes” for Rachel’s mother’s heterosexual wedding, but they did not know the Kleins well. In her letter to the commission, Rachel referred to Aaron Klein as “the husband” because she did not know his name. Furthermore, on the very next day, the Bowman-Cryers found a baker willing to make their cake – and at a lower price.
How could it be considered “reasonable” for two grown women to be that emotionally – and even existentially – hurt after one of them had a brief encounter with a baker she barely knew? Should Aaron and Melissa Klein be held liable for such emotional instability?
The ruling says they should, to the tune of $75,000 in damages to Rachel Bowman-Cryer and $60,000 to her partner, Laurel Bowman-Cryer – who wasn’t even there when the rejection took place. BOLI explicitly states that these damages are awarded “for emotional suffering stemming directly from unlawful discrimination.”
“Discrimination” and Freedom of Speech
In addition to the emotional damages allegedly inflicted by a person the Bowman-Cryers barely knew, BOLI also ordered Aaron and Melissa Klein to stop making any public statements about their policy against baking for same-sex weddings.
Specifically, the ruling ordered the Kleins to “cease and desist from publishing, circulating, issuing or displaying, or causing to be published…any communication to the effect that any of the accommodations…will be refused, withheld from or denied to, or that any discrimination be made against, any person on account of their sexual orientation.”
Unfortunately for BOLI and Avakian, the Kleins did not discriminate on the basis of “sexual orientation,” but on the basis of perceived support for an event which their faith cannot condone. In the words of self-described gay rights activist Matt Stolhandske, “All people should have the right to decide whether or not to condone religious marriage ceremonies for gay couples.”
Stolhandske argues that asking for a cake is different than asking for a blessing on one’s marriage, but the Kleins do not agree. An artistic effort to support a public event can be interpreted as an implicit agreement with the event itself.
If Melissa Klein baked a cake saying “Congratulations, Rachel and Laurel, on your marriage!” it would have saved a lot of people a lot of headache, but it also would have betrayed Melissa’s belief that marriage – properly understood – is only between one man and one woman. It would seem as though Melissa thinks marriage could also be between two women.
This is very different from turning away a customer merely because of their sexual orientation. After all, the Kleins had already sold Rachel Cryer and Laurel Bowman a cake for Rachel’s mother’s wedding previously. Laurel herself testified that “In November of 2011 my fiance and I purchased a wedding cake from this establishment for her mother’s wedding.” If the bakers refused to serve the women based on their sexual orientation alone, why agree to bake a cake for Rachel’s mother and her husband?
In 2014, another bakery denied baking a cake with a message – “Homosexuality is a detestable sin Leviticus 18:22.” The second cake would have said “God loves sinners,” but the Colorado Civil Rights Agency ruled that the baker, Marjorie Silva, was within her rights to deny service because the writing was “hateful and offensive.”
Why can one baker deny service on the grounds she disagrees with the message, while another cannot? Just like the “Sweet Cakes” case in Oregon, the Colorado Civil Rights Agency ruled that “Masterpiece Cakeshop” discriminated against a gay couple on grounds of sexual orientation. Again, the owners of “Masterpiece Cakeshop” gladly serve gay customers – they just wouldn’t bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.
Bakers should have the right to choose which messages to support with their business. Instead, a double-standard emerges between the faith community and the LGBT community, which should be equal before the law.
An Unjust System
In both Oregon and Colorado, these cases were decided by state bureaucracies. A BOLI agency judge accepted the suggestion of a BOLI agency prosecutor, who was in turn tipped off by a BOLI agency investigator.
As National Review’s David French explains, the ruling against Aaron and Melissa Klein was not the result of a conventional court proceeding, where a jury of peers decided the Klein’s guilt and a judge passed the sentence.
Instead, discrimination complaints originate in state agencies (BOLI) or “human rights commissions.” These agencies and commissions follow the ideological goals of state bureaucrats who make no pretense of impartiality. In fact, emails acquired by The Daily Signal reveal a close relationship between BOLI and LGBT group Basic Rights Oregon, which had previously condemned the Kleins.
Avakian himself has made no secret of his “progressive” ideology in support of same-sex marriage and other LGBT causes. While judges ought to be impartial, Avakian speaks out on these issues like a politician.
Agencies run by officials like Avakian can act as “judge, jury, and executioner,” and the process of appealing their decisions can be long, exhausting, and expensive. In Oregon, courts are required to grant discretion to BOLI’s ruling, setting aside its legal conclusions only if they’re “clearly erroneous.”
The Path Forward
Despite this powerful and unchecked assault against freedom of speech, there are reasons to hope for the Kleins. While the crowdfunding website GoFundMe suspended their account, another website, Continue to Give, has raised over $350,000 to help the Kleins pay their settlement and avoid bankruptcy.
Also, according to a new study, Americans increasingly favor a baker’s right to decline service to gay weddings. In 2014, 52 percent of Americans believed no business should have the right to deny service to gay weddings. In 2015, 62 percent said businesses do have this right.
Jeffery Tucker, Director of Digital Development at the Foundation for Economic Education, even argues that allowing businesses to discriminate will help the very group it allegedly harms – gay customers. “Gays themselves need the freedom to discriminate,” he explains.
When a bakery advertises that it will not serve gay weddings, homosexuals planning to get hitched know to shop somewhere else. Their dollars will support a baker who values their business and agrees with their cause – after all, do you really want people who think your marriage is an “abomination” to be baking your wedding cake?
As for those of us who believe marriage is between a man and a woman, we will gravitate toward those bakeries who share our viewpoint. In a free market with multiple options, where businesses can act on their beliefs, everybody wins.
While Tucker defends what he calls discrimination, I only defend a baker’s right to refuse to promote a message with which he or she disagrees. Turning someone away from your business merely because they are black, white, male, female, gay, or straight is not OK. But forcing a Christian to bake a wedding cake for a gay commitment ceremony while allowing another baker to refuse to bake a cake with a Christian message is an unjust double standard.