Large fine for refusing to supply same sex wedding cake upheld in Oregon

There have been a number of “wedding industry” religious freedom cases arising in the United States and the UK over the last few years. On 28 December 2017 the Oregon Court of Appeals, in Klein v. Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (CA Or; Dec 28, 2017, — P.3d —-, 2017 WL 6613356; 289 Or App 507 (2017)upheld a $135,000 fine levied on the Kleins, wedding cake makers, for declining to make a cake for the wedding of Rachel and Laurel Bowmen-Cryer. The case is another example of religious freedom (and, arguably, freedom of speech) being over-ridden in the name of “dignitary harm” to same-sex couples. It is a good example of the issues being presented to the current Ruddock Inquiry into Religious Freedom being conducted in Australia at the moment.

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Cakes, t-shirts and religious freedom- an update

A brief note about two decisions illustrating radically different approaches to religious freedom developing in the context of laws prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination, both from the United States.

One case, Re Klein dba Sweetcakes by Melissa and anor (Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries, State of Oregon; Case Nos 44-14, 45-14; 21 April 2015) is in the “genre” of the wedding industry cases I have previously commented on. The owners of a small-town cake shop were asked to make a wedding cake. When they discovered that this was for a same sex “commitment ceremony” (at the time same sex marriage was not legal in Oregon), they declined on the grounds of their Christian beliefs. Soon word got around, they were besieged by protests and in fact had to shut down their shopfront business. In this decision the Commissioner has ruled, on the basis of a previous finding of liability for sexual orientation discrimination, that they should pay $135,000 in damages to the couple concerned for “emotional suffering”.

The argument that the refusal to provide a cake was not based on the sexual orientation of the customers, but based on the fact that the cake was designed to send a message contrary to the shop-owner’s religious beliefs, was rejected. The Commissioner ruled that holding a same sex wedding ceremony was “inextricably linked” to the complainant’s sexual orientation, and “The Respondents’ refusal to provide a wedding cake for Complainants because it was for their same sex wedding was synonymous with refusing to provide a cake because of Complainants’ sexual orientation” (p 38, lines 14-16).

Nor was a religious freedom argument accepted. Applying the US Supreme Court decision in Smith (1990), the law in question was a “valid and neutral law of general applicability” and hence the First Amendment “free exercise of religion” right did not assist- see e.g. p 57, lines 1-3. Oregon has no RFRA law designed to restore an earlier, more expansive, view of religious freedom.

The imposition of the fine by the Commissioner is subject to further review, and of course to a potential appeal. Interestingly, a public appeal for funds to pay the fine started on an internet site used for this sort of purpose before, but was then cancelled as the host of the site met complaints that the funds would be supporting “campaigns in defense of formal charges of heinous crimes, including violent, hateful, or sexual acts.” Presumably the act of politely declining to bake a cake was a “heinous” act of “hate”.

The other case could hardly be more different in outcome, though sharing many features with Klein. In Hands on Originals, Inc v Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission (Fayette Circuit Court, Civil Branch, 3rd Div, Ky; Civil Action No 14-CI-04474; James D Ishmael Jr, J; 27 April 2015) a printer of T-shirts and promotional materials had declined to print advertising for a “Gay Pride” march. The company had been found by the Human Rights Commission to have discriminated against the local Gay and Lesbian Services Organisation in its refusal.

Judge Ishmael overturned the finding of discrimination. His Honour noted that the company had operated in accordance with the Christian principles of its proprietor for some years, and had declined a number of previous printing jobs on the basis of the messages being conveyed (for example, shirts promoting a strip club and others containing a violence related message- see p 9). He also noted that the former president of the GLSO, who had filed the complaint, does not identify as gay and is actually married to someone of the opposite sex. It was a particularly clear case where the refusal of the job was based on the message, and not the sexual orientation of the customer.

In reviewing the Commission’s decision the judge applied Constitutional principles as well as disagreeing with the finding of sexual orientation discrimination. The decision of the Commission was said to breach the company’s First Amendment freedom of speech, because the Commission was in effect requiring them to speak a message they did not support (see p 9). As his Honour said:

HOO’s declination to print the shirts was based upon the message of GLSO and the Pride Festival and not on the sexual orientation of its representatives or members. (at p 10, emphasis in original)

In addition, the Commission’s finding was a breach of religious freedom rights. Here the judge did not need to find his way through the barrier of the Smith decision, because Kentucky statute KRS 446.350 was a State-based version of the RFRA discussed in previous posts. This provision required a Government showing that a substantial burden on religious freedom could be shown to be in furtherance of a “compelling governmental interest” and was the “least restrictive means” to further that interest. Here there was a clear burden in requiring a Christian printing firm to support a message they saw as contrary to the Bible. (In light of the Supreme Court decision in Hobby Lobby (2014), the RFRA provision in referring to “person” should be read as including corporate persons like the company HOO- see p 14). The Government could not demonstrate why it was necessary to do this to further any interest it had- as the judge noted, the complainant organisation had no problems in getting their printing done by another company. (Indeed, HOO in its dealings with the GLSO had offered to find another company who would do the job at the same price that they would have charged, if the organisation had had any problems in doing so.)

Why the different results?

These cases offer similar situations: a commercial service provider who, because of their Christian beliefs concerning sexuality, cannot in good conscience provide their artistic talents to the support of a message favouring same sex relationships, and is alleged to be guilty of sexual orientation discrimination. In my view the second decision was correct, and the first decision ought to have been decided in a similar way. But there are differences that may have made a difference. The differences may lie in:

  • different complainants: in the Klein case homosexual persons, whereas in the HOO case the person requesting the job did not identify as gay;
  • different purposes for which the job was required: in the Klein case the celebration of a wedding between the parties, which of course carries all the sympathies of those who love weddings; whereas in HOO the issue is a public parade;
  • different degrees to which the issue is about “speech”: the HOO case looks to be all about a message, and the US courts are traditionally very keen to support free speech; the Klein case is about a form of speech, when analysed carefully (the celebration of a relationship), but appears on the surface not to be;
  • and the legislative context: it seems that this is one example where the presence of an RFRA made a difference- in Klein the Smith decision (which on top of everything else was about facts which arose in Oregon) receives priority, whereas in HOO the judge applies what is in effect the pre-Smith line of cases reflected in the local RFRA.

Still, it is good in my view to see a judicial decision recognising the strength of the free speech and freedom of religion arguments in these cases, and it may be hoped that this case provides support for a better analysis in other cases.