SALEM, Ore. — The Oregon Court of Appeals unanimously upheld a ruling — and a $135,000 fine — that two Gresham bakery owners discriminated against a gay couple by refusing to make them a wedding cake, violating Oregon law.
The courts did reverse a portion of the Bureau of Labor and Industries decision that said Melissa and Aaron Klein violated Oregon law by communicating their intent to discriminate against same-sex couples in the future.
The appeals court decision, released Thursday, came almost nine months after attorneys representing the Kleins and the attorneys for the Bureau of Labor and Industries argued before the three-judge panel.
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It came years after Rachel Bowman-Cryer and Laurel Bowman-Cryer first stopped at the Klein's custom-cake bakery.
The couple had no idea a simple item on their pre-wedding to-do list would end in such controversy.
They decided to order a cake from Sweet Cakes by Melissa, a Gresham bakery recommended by a relative, for their upcoming commitment ceremony. Rachel Bowman-Cryer and her mother stopped by the shop for a tasting and to order the cake.
When Aaron Klein found out the cake was for two brides, he told Bowman-Cryer he and his wife did not make cakes for same-sex weddings because of their religious beliefs.
According to a brief filed by the civil rights organization Lambda Legal, when Bowman-Cryer's mother returned to the bakery to reason with Aaron Klein, he called her daughter and her soon-to-be daughter-in-law "abominations."
The Bowman-Cryers filed a complaint with the state Bureau of Labor and Industries, alleging they were denied public accommodation of the Klein's business services because of their sexual orientation.
BOLI investigators determined the refusal constituted unlawful discrimination and ordered the Kleins to pay $135,000 in damages to the Bowman-Cryers.
The Kleins balked at first, then paid the $135,000 and vowed to appeal the case. The money was placed in a government account until the appeals process ends.
The Kleins' attorney could not be immediately reached for comment following the ruling. The case could continue to the Oregon Supreme Court if needed.
A similar case, involving a Colorado bakery, went before the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month.
Paul Thompson, attorney for the Bowman-Cryers, said he will be watching that case closely.
When Thompson contacted the couple Thursday morning, he said they were elated but still processing the news.
"We're really happy with the outcome," he said. "It's a great day for equality in Oregon."
The Bowman-Cryers held a commitment ceremony in June 2013 and were married in May 2014, four days after same-sex marriage became legal in Oregon.
They released a statement Thursday that read, in part, "It does not matter how you were born or who you love. All of us are equal under the law and should be treated equally. Oregon will not allow a 'Straight Couples Only' sign to be hung in bakeries or other stores."
The legal battle made national and international headlines.
Donations poured in for the Kleins, who campaigned in Iowa with Ted Cruz at "Rally for Religous Liberty," and C. Boyden Gray, the former White House Counsel for George H.W. Bush, offered to represent the couple for free.
Since their complaint became public, the Bowman-Cryers have received "countless" harassing messages calling them evil and "the dumb lesbians who ruined those Christian bakers' lives," according to Lambda Legal's brief.
The Bowman-Cryers said the case was not simply about a wedding cake, their marriage or their wedding. It is about whether is okay for a business to refuse to serve people cause of the owner's religious beliefs.
The couple said they moved to Oregon because the state stands strong for equality and they are proud to raise their daughters where people believe in dignity and respect.
"The stakes have never been higher, and the outcomes of this case could change the lives of every Oregonian," they said in a statement issued in March. "We support religious freedom as a fundamental value in America — but religious beliefs should not entitle anyone to discriminate, target or hurt others."
The shop front for Sweet Cakes by Melissa closed in 2013, but the couple continued to run the business out of their home until 2016, when it closed permanently.
"We lost everything we loved and worked so hard to build," Melissa Klein said following oral arguments before the Oregon Court of Appeals in March.
Through tears, Klein said she poured her heart and passion into each cake and designed each one to fit each couple perfectly. As a devout Christian, she incorporated her faith into every aspect of her life, especially her work.
"I was happy to serve this couple in the past for another event and would be happy to serve them again, but I couldn't participate in the ceremony that goes against what I believe," she said.
Klein said she feels like the government violated her family's religious beliefs and told her what to believe.
During oral arguments before the Oregon Court of Appeals in March, the Kleins' attorney Adam Gustafson said forcing someone to participate in a same-sex wedding violated their free speech and religious freedom.
The law cannot compel art, he said. Simply put, Melissa's custom cake-baking was her art and should be fully protected by the First Amendment.
The cakes the Kleins made had a sense of form, intent and expression, Gustafson said.
Judge Rebecca Duncan asked whether a person making a sandwich in a cafeteria could make the same argument.
Gustafson said it depended on the intent and effort behind the sandwich making.
The Kleins did not discriminate based on sexual orientation; rather, they chose not to participate in a same-sex wedding ceremony because they believe marriage should only exist between a man and a woman, Gustafson said.
Judge Joel DeVore asked whether it would be discrimination if a baker refused to make a cake for an interracial couple based on religious belief.
"Race is different from sexual orientation," Gustafson said, adding that laws barring interracial marriages were proxies for racial bias and white supremacy.
The First Amendment also protects the right to be free from compelled speech. The state is required to extend an exemption for religious hardship to protect "decent and honorable" people like the Kleins, he said.
Carson Whitehead, Assistant Attorney General with the Oregon Department of Justice, represented BOLI. He argued the case turns on two simple facts: The Kleins refused to provide the exact same service for a same-sex couple that they would with a heterosexual couple, and the denial of services was based on sexual orientation.
Sexual orientation, intimacy, marriage and weddings are so deeply connected, it is impossible to separate them.
"It's hard for me to imagine that they could be teased apart," Whitehead said.
Klein denied the couple service before there was even a discussion of an inscription. Whitehead said this constituted a refusal of services, not compelled speech.
"Cake baking isn't pure speech," Whitehead said, adding that cakes serve all kinds of functions for all kinds of reasons.
He also argued that the damages awarded to the couple were reasonable considering the emotional distress they experienced. The nature of the discrimination and its impact on the couple's sense of self were harmful, he said.
The appeals court ruled that the Oregon law barring discrimination was clear, and the Kleins violated it by refusing service based on the couple's sexual orientation.
The judges also stated the Kleins' attorney failed to show that wedding cake constituted "fully protected speech or art." At the most, the business was a combination of expressive and non-expressive elements. Therefore, the Kleins' First Amendment rights were not violated.
After the case, the Bowman-Cryers left the courthouse in tears. The Kleins gathered with their attorneys outside.
"I'm thankful we actually got to have our day in court," Aaron Klein said. "Man's court is going to do what man's court is going to do. The honest truth is we just seek to serve the Lord."
For questions, comments and news tips, email reporter Whitney Woodworth at firstname.lastname@example.org, call 503-399-6884 or follow on Twitter @wmwoodworth