by Jorge Gomez • 5 min read
The U.S. Supreme Court closed out its recent term on a high note for religious freedom. The Court delivered a major win for religious workers with its landmark ruling in our Faithful Carrier case and also issued a favorable order in our Sweet Cakes by Melissa case.
On June 30th, the Supreme Court threw out a lower court decision that forced Oregon bakers Aaron and Melissa Klein out of business by penalizing them for refusing to create a government-approved message that was in conflict with their religious beliefs. The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries originally imposed a devastating $135,000 damage award against the Kleins after they declined to create a custom cake celebrating a same-sex wedding.
The Court’s order is known as “Grant, Vacate, Remand” (GVR), which requires at least five justices to vote in favor. In a GVR, the Supreme Court grants the petition and then “vacates” the lower court ruling, meaning the lower court’s ruling is set aside or made void. In other words, a majority of the Justices agreed that Oregon’s court needs to take another look at the case. Then the Court “remanded”—or sent back—the case with clear direction: they must re-examine the Kleins’ case in light of the recent ruling in 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis. In that decision, the Court held that government may not force creative business owners to speak messages that violate their beliefs.
“It’s a win when the Supreme Court vacates a bad lower court decision like it did for Aaron and Melissa today, but the case is not over,” said First Liberty President and CEO Kelly Shackelford. “We will stand with them no matter how long it takes to get the victory they deserve.”
Trent McCotter of Boyden Gray & Associates is the volunteer attorney working on the case. He said, “The First Amendment protects the rights of all Americans to speak freely and live according to their sincere religious beliefs. As the Supreme Court has recognized, carefully guarding these rights is all the more important when the beliefs expressed are controversial.”
First Liberty Executive General Counsel Hiram Sasser explains in more detail what the Court’s order means and what’s next. Watch below:
Why There’s Hope for Victory
Will Aaron and Melissa finally get a taste of victory? As we prepare to return to the state courts, here’s why we’re optimistic about winning their case.
This is not the first time the Supreme Court has told lower courts to follow its direction when reviewing Aaron and Melissa’s case. This is a flashback to 2019, when the Supreme Court also issued a favorable GVR. At that time, the Supreme Court returned the case to Oregon for reconsideration in light of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The Court’s decision sent the message that the Kleins deserved the same protection from religious hostility afforded to Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop. In July 2022, without ordering a new hearing, the Bureau of Labor and Industries reduced the damage award from $135,000 to $30,000. But the lower courts still refused to restore Aaron and Melissa’s constitutional rights, which is why we took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court a second time.
This means that for the next phase of this legal battle, we have not one, but two Supreme Court rulings in hand (303 Creative and Masterpiece Cakeshop) which favor our clients. Those two decisions made abundantly clear that government hostility toward religious Americans is unconstitutional and that it’s unconstitutional for any state to force people of faith to create messages that violate their religious convictions.
Thank you for standing strong alongside Aaron, Melissa and First Liberty. It has been a long and difficult legal battle for them and their five children. We and the Kleins sincerely appreciate your prayers, encouragement and support.
The search for sweet justice is not over, and we will continue fighting for Aaron and Melissa.
There’s a lot at stake with this case. The outcome could impact countless religious Americans who are being forced to choose between violating their beliefs or losing their business.
Litigating the Sweet Cakes case through the state courts will require tremendous resources, which means we and the Kleins need your continued support. We need to replenish our legal arsenal for the intense battles ahead. The Kleins are counting on us to bring an end to the injustice they’ve faced for more than 10 years. Can we count on you?