The U.S. Supreme Court ordered reconsideration of a $135,000 award against an Oregon bakery that refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding in a case that revived a fractious debate over religious rights and equal treatment.
After more than three months of deliberation, the justices Monday set aside the award and told an Oregon state appeals court to revisit the case in light of a 2018 Supreme Court ruling in a similar fight from Colorado. The Supreme Court resolved that case narrowly—and avoided the core constitutional questions—by saying Colorado officials had shown animus toward the baker’s religious views.
The latest case involves “Sweetcakes by Melissa,” a now-closed Portland-area bakery owned by Melissa and Aaron Klein. The Kleins, who are Christian, cited religious grounds when they refused to provide a cake for Rachel and Laurel Bowman-Cryer in 2013.
The Bowman-Cryers filed a complaint with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, the state’s civil rights watchdog, which found the bakers in violation of a state anti-discrimination law and awarded the two women $135,000. An Oregon state appeals court upheld the award.
The Kleins say the state violated their speech and religious freedoms. They said the ruling “will chill expression and enlarge the power of bureaucrats to force unwilling speakers to participate in rituals and to promote ideologies of all kinds that violate their creeds and their consciences.”
The Kleins, who paid the penalty plus interest in 2015, say the dispute forced them to close their business. The couple benefited from a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $350,000, according to a report at the time.
‘Months of Delay’
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said the lower court applied “well-established First Amendment principles to conclude that a bakery open to the public did not have a constitutional right to discriminate against customers on the basis of the customers’ sexual orientation.”
The Supreme Court took an unusually long time to decide how to handle the case before settling on what is often a routine step. The appeal was scheduled for possible discussion at the justices’ private conference 13 times.
The Supreme Court didn’t spell out precisely what concerns it had about the award. But the Oregon court’s reconsideration is likely to focus on the role of Brad Avakian, whose position as commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries made him the key decision maker in the case.
Shortly after the Bowman-Cryers filed their complaint, Avakian posted a news article about the dispute on Facebook, along with the comment: “Everyone has a right to their religious beliefs, but that doesn’t mean they can disobey laws already in place. Having one set of rules for everybody ensures that people are treated fairly as they go about their daily lives.” Avakian didn’t specifically comment on the dispute between Sweetcakes and the Bowman-Cryers.
In upholding the award, an Oregon state appeals court said Avakian’s comments “fall short of the kinds of statements that reflect prejudgment of the facts or an impermissibly closed-minded view of law or policy so as to indicate that he, as a decision maker, cannot be impartial.”