Former Gresham bakery owners at center of controversy get first - KPTV - FOX 12

Former Gresham bakery owners at center of controversy get first day in court

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Aaron and Melissa Klein outside court Thursday afternoon. (KPTV) Aaron and Melissa Klein outside court Thursday afternoon. (KPTV)
SALEM, OR (KPTV) -

After a four year battle, the owners of the former Gresham bakery “Sweet Cakes by Melissa” had their first day in court Thursday afternoon, as lawyers on both sides argued before a panel of three judges on the Oregon Court of Appeals.

Aaron and Melissa Klein made national headlines after they were asked to bake a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple in 2013, but declined saying it could contradict their religious beliefs as Christians.

The lesbian couple, Rachel and Laurel Bowman-Cryer, filed a complaint and the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (“BOLI”) ruled in 2015 that the Klein’s violated Oregon law as business owners by discriminating based on sexual orientation. They were ordered to pay the Bowman-Cryer’s $135,000 in “emotional damages.”

But last spring, lawyers for the Klein’s filed an appeal to the BOLI ruling saying it violated the Klein’s constitutional rights to religious freedom, free speech and due process.

“I was happy to serve this couple in the past for another event, and I would be happy to serve them again. But I couldn’t participate in a ceremony that goes against what I believe,” Melissa Klein told reporters Thursday. “America is a place where the government can’t force you to violate your religious beliefs or tell you what to believe, but we feel like that is exactly what happened to us.”

A panel of three judges from the Oregon Court of Appeals heard oral arguments from lawyers representing the Klein’s and BOLI in Salem Thursday afternoon.

Both sides argued over whether the cake would be considered art, which would be considered “protected speech” or whether it would instead be considered an example of “expressive conduct.”

At times, the judges used colorful examples in their questions, including whether a sandwich made in a cafeteria line would be considered art, whether a cake for an inter-racial couple would fall into the same category, and whether a gas attendant who didn’t believe women should drive based on his religious beliefs should be allowed to refuse a woman service at the pump.

Lawyers for the Klein’s also argued that labor commissioner Brad Avakian was biased against them and that the $135,000 they were ordered to pay was excessive compared to previous BOLI cases. Lawyers for BOLI argued that neither were true.

The hearing lasted less than an hour as both sides were given 20 minutes for their arguments. The judges had previously reviewed the written arguments on both sides.

“We lost everything we loved and worked so hard to build. I loved my shop, it meant everything to me, and losing it has been so hard for me and my family,” Melissa Klein added.

The bakery closed in late 2016, and while the Klein’s continued to fill small orders from their home for a short time, the couple confirmed Thursday that has also since ceased.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars poured in from their supporters throughout the years-long battle, and the Klein’s said Thursday they have paid the $135,000 in emotional damages, adding that the money is now sitting in an escrow account belonging to BOLI.

Rachel and Laurel Bowman-Cryer also attended the court proceedings Thursday. They did not wish to speak to reporters, but their attorney Paul Thompson read this written statement on their behalf:

“This case is not about a wedding cake. While our family has suffered because of it, it’s not really about our wedding or our marriage. This case is about answering one fundamental question: is it okay for a business to refuse to serve people because of the business owner’s religious beliefs? Would it be okay for a salon or a grocery store to refuse to serve Christians? Or for a doctor to refuse to provide life-saving medical treatment to Muslims?

We moved to Oregon because this state stands strong for equality. Oregonians believe in dignity and respect, and we are proud to be raising our daughters here.

The stakes have never been higher, and the outcome of this case could change the lives of every Oregonian. We support religious freedom as a fundamental value in America – but religious beliefs should not entitle anyone to discriminate, target or hurt others.

No person or family should have to go through what our family has gone through. Every family deserves respect, dignity and the opportunity to live free from discrimination.”

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