by Jorge Gomez • 5 min read
In June, we’re celebrating the seven Supreme Court victories we’ve had in the last few years. In this edition of our Supreme Victory series, we remember our 2019 win at the nation’s highest court for our clients, Aaron and Melissa Klein.
The state of Oregon punished Aaron and Melissa because they declined to create a custom cake for a same-sex wedding. Doing so would force them to violate their religious beliefs. The state imposed a financially devastating $135,000 penalty against their business, Sweet Cakes by Melissa, which forced them to shut down.
We fought their case through the state courts, which refused to restore Aaron and Melissa’s constitutional rights. So, we took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time.
In June 2019, the Supreme Court issued a favorable order for the Kleins. It issued what’s called a “Grant, Vacate, Remand” (GVR), which requires at least five justices to vote in favor. Why was this GVR a win? Because it gave the Kleins a second chance to fight their case in the state courts.
In a GVR, the Supreme Court grants the petition and then “vacates” the lower court ruling, stripping it of effect, meaning that the lower court’s judgment on a case is set aside or made void. In other words, a majority of the Justices agreed that Oregon’s lower court needed to redo the Sweet Cakes case to correctly consider the Kleins’ First Amendment rights.
The Court “remanded” the case, sending it back to the state courts with clear instructions: Aaron and Melissa deserve the same protection from religious discrimination afforded to Jack Phillips in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado (2018). That case was an important victory for religious liberty that said government officials cannot treat religious Americans with hostility and must respect their beliefs.
It took years, but Aaron and Melissa’s case worked its way again through the state courts. The Oregon appellate court concluded that Aaron and Melissa had indeed been treated with unconstitutional hostility toward their religious beliefs by the Bureau of Labor and Industries. But instead of ending the case, the court sent the Christian bakers back to the same state bureau that was hostile to them — the same bureau that acted as prosecutor, judge and jury in their case the first time around.
Last September, First Liberty asked the Supreme Court—for the second time—to hear the Sweet Cakes case. In an interesting twist, the Court has not yet agreed to hear the case, nor turned it away. It’s just holding it. It’s possible the Court is waiting until it releases an opinion in another First Amendment case, 303 Creative v. Elenis. That one involves a Colorado web designer who declined to create websites for same-sex weddings because of her religious beliefs.
Aaron and Melissa have been searching for justice for nearly a decade. It’s been a long and difficult legal battle for them and their five children, to say the least. The Kleins have been harassed, received death threats, and lost a business. Melissa said:
“Having to shut down the shop was devastating. Closing our business took a toll not just on me, but on all of us as a family. For so many years we’d worked so hard to build something of our own, and then to watch it disappear in such a short time crushed me.”
After fighting for so many years, will the Kleins finally get to enjoy a sweet and final victory that brings an end to the state’s hostility? They won at the Supreme Court once, but the state did not do its part. Now, we’re praying the Supreme Court will rule in their favor again, perhaps even grant them the opportunity to have their day in court.
For the Kleins—and for all religious, small-business owners—winning this case would be immensely important. A second Supreme Court victory could be a huge step in the right direction to restore and protect religious liberty in the marketplace. It could deliver relief to countless faith-based business owners who face hostile treatment and the real threat of closure and bankruptcy because of their beliefs.
As we celebrate our 2019 Supreme Court win for Aaron and Melissa and continue to fight for them, we want to thank you for your support. Pursuing cases at the nation’s highest court is expensive. It requires tremendous resources.
First Liberty can only keep providing top-notch representation to everyday Americans like the Kleins with your continued support. Our clients receive the best legal defense—and they never see a bill!
At the end of June, we will wrap up our Fiscal Year—and we need your help to reach our yearly goal. If you give to First Liberty any time between today and June 30, your donation will have a multiplied impact thanks to a generous $350,000 Challenge Grant!
With your help, our attorneys will continue defending and delivering victories that protect religious freedom for generations to come—for our children and grandchildren. Can we count on your support?