Lambda Legal Represents Lesbian Couple in Wedding Cake Discrimination Case

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September 6, 2016
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The Bowman-Cryer family.
The Bowman-Cryer family.

This blog post was co-authored by Nancy Marcus, Law and Policy Project Senior Staff Attorney, and Jennifer C. Pizer, Senior Counsel and Law and Policy Project National Director.

Lambda Legal has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Oregon Court of Appeals in a case of an Oregon bakery that refused to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple.

Laurel and Rachel Bowman-Cryer had been together ten years and were foster parents to two girls when they decided to get married. In January 2013, Rachel went with her mom to a wedding cake tasting at “Sweetcakes by Melissa” in the Portland suburb of Gresham, co-owned by Melissa and Aaron Klein. When he heard the wedding was for a lesbian couple, Aaron said, “We don’t do same-sex weddings.” He then called the couple’s relationship an “abomination.”

The Kleins have claimed their religious beliefs prevent them from providing the same services to same-sex couples that they offer to different-sex couples. However, Oregon has a law that makes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation by commercial businesses illegal.

Laurel filed an Oregon Justice Department complaint that night, based on the discrimination they had faced in violation of the Oregon Public Accommodations Law. Aaron Klein then posted the complaint on his Facebook page and went on a right-wing talk show to justify their rejection of Rachel and Laurel. The couple started receiving death threats, which continue to this day. News crews stalked their apartment.

“Can’t wait to see you die and go to hell,” one message said.

“I am buying up my ammo right now you filthy, ugly, disgusting, fat, stupid, cruel, anti-Christian piece of liberal scum,” a Facebook message read. “I am getting ready for the war so I hope you have a good hiding place, you sick, disgusting, miserable, piece of degenerate lesbian scum.”

For the Bowman-Cryers, this began three and a half years of hell. Though their home address and other contact information had been made public, they tried to escape public view. They did not respond to media requests, changed jobs, and largely stopped socializing outside their home.

The couple started receiving death threats, which continue to this day. News crews stalked their apartment. “Can’t wait to see you die and go to hell,” one message said.

But their efforts to be out of sight did not calm the waters because the Kleins, conversely, embraced their new, high-profile role as ostensible victims. They embarked on a media and public event odyssey proclaiming their religious commitment to refusing same-sex couples and praising legislation and litigation to expand religious rights to discriminate. And Laurel and Rachel remained inundated by hateful abuse.

The Justice Department did not pursue their complaint, but the Bowman-Cryers also filed with the state Bureau of Labor and Industries, which did prosecute on their behalf. As the couple later told the Oregonian, they had simply wanted an apology and a resolution, and weren’t seeking money or notoriety. But in July 2015, after a trial that established the intentionality of the Kleins’ conduct and the trauma Rachel and Laurel had endured, the Bureau awarded the Bowman-Cryers $135,000 in damages.

The Kleins then appealed to the Oregon Court of Appeals, for which Aaron and Melissa agreed to be represented by one of the most zealously antigay Christian legal groups and a former White House Counsel to the first President Bush. The Oregon Attorney General’s office represents the Bureau.

Lambda Legal represents the Bowman-Cryers for this appeal so they can participate directly in the proceeding. Lambda Legal’s brief is also on behalf of thousands of Lambda Legal members in Oregon who may be affected by the outcome of the case. The brief argues that the state has a compelling interest in ending discrimination against LGBT people, and that this interest warrants enforcement of the state’s public accommodations law without a new, judicially created religious exemption.

Courts have repeatedly confirmed that religious objections do not trump society’s compelling interest in a nondiscriminatory marketplace.

“Oregon enacted its antidiscrimination laws to protect vulnerable members of our diverse society from discrimination in public life regardless of anybody’s religious reasons for wanting to refuse them goods, services, or other benefits offered to everyone else,” the brief argues. “Despite this country’s long history recognizing that religious exemptions to civil rights laws would eviscerate such laws, the Kleins nonetheless ask this Court to let them single out LGBT individuals and same-sex couples for rejection, humiliation, and stigma as they operate their businesses. The answer must be ‘no.’”

Lambda Legal’s representation of Laurel and Rachel continues our work nationally to show the harms of discrimination, the need for full LGBT civil rights protections, and why religious exemptions should be rejected today, as they have been in the past. 

We have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in successful cases in New York and Colorado, and in a case now pending before the Washington Supreme Court. (The ACLU represented the couples in all three cases.)

This advocacy complements our work against state religious exemption legislation, such as Mississippi’s new HB 1523 law, and Supreme Court briefs arguing why religiously affiliated nonprofits should not be allowed to block employee access to basic health care, and why religious schools should not be able to demand public funding if they discriminate.

As for Laurel and Rachel’s case, Rachel explains that "as members of the LGBT community, and as parents to two growing daughters, we have a strong interest in seeing the law in Oregon upheld so that no other family will have to go through what we have been through."

Stefan Johnson is Lambda Legal's attorney on the brief for the Bowman-Cryers. Lambda Legal joins Oregon attorney Paul Thompson in representing the couple.