The state of Oregon has drastically reduced financial penalties it assigned a Gresham baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple nearly a decade ago.
In compliance with a state appeals court ruling earlier this year, State Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle announced Tuesday that the Bureau of Labor and Industries is ordering Aaron Klein to pay $30,000 damages in the case, down from a $135,000 penalty handed out in 2015.
The move is the latest twist in a matter that began in 2013 when Klein, the co-owner of the bakery Sweet Cakes By Melissa, denied service to Rachel Bowman-Cryer and her mother when the pair attempted to purchase a cake for Bowman-Cryer’s upcoming wedding.
According to records, Klein said his Christian faith did not allow him to support same-sex weddings. When Bowman-Cryer’s mother returned to the business to discuss the matter further, Klein cited a Bible verse: “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.” Bowman-Cryer’s mother only relayed to her daughter that Klein had called her and her fiancée abominations, leaving out the Bible verse.
The incident spurred widespread controversy in Oregon, and led then-Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian to order Klein to pay $135,000 for illegally discriminating against the Bowman-Cryers and causing them anguish. A portion of the hefty penalty relied on a determination Klein had caused Bowman-Cryer and her fiancée immense pain by calling them “abominations,” regardless of the fact Klein had been citing a Bible verse.
The damages were scrapped in 2018, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Colorado baker who’d also been fined for refusing service to a same-sex couple on religious grounds. Justices in that ruling found Colorado’s penalty had shown bias against the baker’s religion. They ordered the Oregon Court of Appeals to take a fresh look at the Sweet Cakes case.
On that second look, and applying the new standards set by the Supreme Court, Oregon appellate judges found reason to believe Avakian’s steep penalty demonstrated bias. While the court found the state had a right to penalize Klein for illegal discrimination, it also concluded that BOLI had “at least subtly” strayed from its legal requirement to be neutral in regard to his religion.
As a result, the Oregon Court of Appeals directed the bureau, now led by Hoyle, to take another look at the penalty.
“Per the direction of the Court of Appeals, we have recalibrated the damages awarded to complainants to fall squarely within the range of such awards in previous BOLI public accommodations cases, given the record established in this case,” Hoyle said in a statement Tuesday. “This award is based on the violation of law, the record in the proceeding, and is consistent with BOLI case history.”
Hoyle’s order removes any consideration of Klein’s recitation of the Bible verse from the penalty, only awarding damages based on his decision to refuse service. It awards Rachel Bowman-Cryer $20,000 and her wife, Laurel Bowman-Cryer, $10,000 “for emotional, mental, and physical suffering resulting from the denial of service.”
Aaron Klein and his wife Melissa have left Oregon. Business records indicate they have reopened their business in Montana.