The US Supreme Court, Washington, DC (file)
The US Supreme Court, Washington, DC (file)

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday threw out a lower court ruling against the owners of an Oregon bakery who refused based on their Christian beliefs to make a wedding cake for a lesbian couple in another case pitting gay rights against religious rights.

The justices sent the case back to an Oregon court so it can reconsider its ruling against the bakery owners in light of the Supreme Court's June 2018 decision in a strikingly similar case from Colorado.

The state court will have to come up with a new decision and potentially could rule against the bakery owners, Melissa and Aaron Klein, a second time even after taking into consideration last year's Supreme Court decision in favor of a Denver-area Christian baker who had refused to make a cake for two gay men.

In December 2017, the Oregon court had let stand a lower state court ruling against the Kleins.

They ran a bakery called Sweetcakes by Melissa in Gresham, a city just east of Portland, and were contesting Oregon's a $135,000 penalty for violating a state anti-discrimination law by spurning the couple, Rachel Bowman-Cryer and Laurel Bowman-Cryer. The Kleins argued that the state fine violated the their rights of free speech and free exercise of religion under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.

In the narrow ruling last year, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of the Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, citing his Christian faith.

The decision left unresolved the bigger question of whether certain businesses can claim religious exemptions from anti-discrimination laws.

The justices will have another chance to weigh in on the broader questions in the coming months when they consider whether to hear an appeal by a Washington state florist who refused to sell a gay couple flowers for their wedding. The Washington Supreme Court on June 6 ruled against the florist.

Religious reasons 

The Oregon cake dispute began in 2013 when Aaron Klein told Rachel Bowman-Cryer and her mother, Cheryl McPherson, that Sweetcakes did not make cakes for same-sex weddings for religious reasons.

The Kleins had previously made a cake at the request of the same lesbian couple for McPherson's previous heterosexual wedding. The lesbian couple, who married in 2014 and have two children, said they wanted to order the exact same cake.

When McPherson returned to the shop to protest, Aaron Klein quoted a Bible passage: "You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female, it is an abomination."

The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, responding to a complaint filed by the gay couple, imposed the penalty after finding that the Kleins had violated an Oregon public accommodations law that bars the denial of service based on sexual orientation.

Lawyers for the Kleins, from the conservative group First Liberty Institute, have said the bakery was driven out of business because of the dispute.

The state in court papers called the case a straightforward example of denial of service based on sexual orientation. The Kleins did not discuss the design of the cake or what message it would convey before refusing to make it, the state's lawyers said.

The Oregon Court of Appeals, an intermediate appeals court, ruled in 2017 rejected the constitutional challenge by the Kleins. The law "simply requires their compliance with a neutral law of general applicability, and the Kleins have made no showing that the state targeted them for enforcement because of their religious beliefs," the state court said.

The Oregon Supreme Court refused to hear the case in June 2018, just after the justices ruled in the Colorado case.

Of the 50 states, 21 including Colorado and Oregon have anti-discrimination laws protecting gay people.