The U.S. Supreme Court vacated on Monday a $135,000 fine against an Oregon-based family business that refused based on religious objections to make a wedding cake in 2013 for a same-sex couple.
In an order list on Monday, the Supreme Court indicated it had issued summary disposition in response to the petition for certiorari filed by Aaron and Melissa Kline, vacating the decision against the couple and remanding it back to the Oregon Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court’s action falls short of recognizing the First Amendment right sought by the couple to refuse service to same-sex couples.
The Oregon Court of Appeals is instructed to reconsider the case in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. The ruling found the Colorado Civil Rights Commission held anti-religious bias when concluding Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop violated Colorado civil rights law. Based on those narrow facts of the case, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the decision against Phillips.
The Klein petition was filed by the Texas-based law firm First Liberty in October and been pending before the Supreme Court for nearly a year.
Kelly Shackelford, CEO of chief counsel of First Liberty, said in a statement the U.S. Supreme Court’s action “is a victory for Aaron and Melissa Klein and for religious liberty for all Americans.”
“The Constitution protects speech, popular or not, from condemnation by the government,” Shackelford said. “The message from the court is clear, government hostility toward religious Americans will not be tolerated.”
In 2013, a female same-sex couple, Rachel and Laurel Bowman-Cryer, came to Sweetcakes and, after an initial tasting, requested a wedding cake for a commitment ceremony. (Oregon hadn’t yet legalized same-sex marriage.) Melissa Kline refused them the service on the basis that baking a wedding cake would be inconsistent with her religious beliefs.
The couple filed a complaint with the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries asserting Sweetcakes had violated Oregon’s human rights law, which bars anti-gay discrimination in public accommodations and fined the couple $135,000. The administrative court also issued a cease and desist order, which the couple interpreted as a gag order preventing them from talking about their beliefs.
Melissa Klein and her spouse Aaron asserted the penalty put their company Sweetcakes out of business. (However, according to the Washington Times, the couple raised $352,500 through crowd-sourcing as a result of donations from religious sympathizers.)
The Oregon Court of Appeals upheld the decision from the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries. Last year, the Oregon Supreme Court declined to review the petition, which prompted First Liberty to file the petition for certiorari before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sharon McGowan, chief strategy officer and legal director for Lambda Legal, said the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to outright dismiss the case is “obviously frustrating” and justices could have made things easier with simply a detail of certiorari.
“Rachel and Laurel, the couple who is at the center of this case, has been in the middle of all of this so many years that it would have been wonderful from our perspective for this chapter to finally come to an end and for the Oregon decision vindicating their right to be free from discrimination [to stand] to allow them to bring closure to the case,” McGowan said.
McGowan said it was important not to lose focus on the couple who were denied service at Sweetcakes when they entered the business expecting the same kind of treatment as any other couple seeking a wedding cake.
“At the end of the day, it’s just important to remember that it’s about a couple who experienced…not only dignitary harm, but the larger stigma of walking into a business that is supposedly open to all and being told that we don’t serve your kind,” McGowan said. “There’s nothing wrong with applying non-discrimination laws to ensure that businesses are open to all. The Supreme Court seems to making something much harder than it needs to be, when, in fact, it really seems to be a very straightforward application of well-settled legal principles.”
The U.S. Supreme Court’s action in the Klein case is similar to what the Supreme Court did with a petition filed by a Washington State florist, Barronelle Stutzman, who similarly sought a First Amendment to refuse to supply floral arrangements to a same-sex wedding. After the U.S. Supreme Court remanded her petition and vacated the state ruling against Stutzman, the Washington State Supreme Court earlier this month came to the same conclusion she violated Washington State’s LGBT non-discrimination law by refusing to serve floral arrangements in 2013 for a same-sex couple’s wedding.
However, that is no assurance the Oregon Court of Appeals will reaffirm its decision against Aaron and Melissa Kline under the new guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court. In fact, the record shows religiosity played a clear role in the incident between the business owners and the same-sex couple. When the same-sex couple was denied service, the mother of one of the individuals who was in present in the store complained. In response, one of the owners quoted the portion of Leviticus that proscribes homosexuality and calling the couple an “abomination.”
Moreover, the $135,000 penalty levied against Aaron and Melissa Klein surprised some legal observers, who speculated the fine might be lowered upon re-evaluation of the case.
McGowan, however, was confident Oregon would reaffirm its decision and said she’s “not aware” of anything in the case that would stop the state from reaching the same conclusion it reached.
“I think that their analysis below was extremely thorough, and, I think, in many ways should have been put to rest any of the concerns that the court found in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case to the extent that they want to ask them to go back just show their work and make absolutely sure that there’s nothing to be concerned about,” McGowan said. “I have no doubt that they will do it, but I don’t think that there’s any reason for us to be concerned that the Oregon Court of Appeals, which is where this was remanded back, will have any reason to revisit its underlying conclusion in that case.”
This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National LGBT Media Association.