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SCOTUS Renders Sort Of Victory For Religious Liberty

First Amendment
The Supreme Court on Monday lifted an order punishing a Christian baker in Oregon who refused to produce a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, telling a lower court to reconsider the dispute in light of the 2018 Masterpiece Cakeshop decision. The case is No. 18-547 Klein v. Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries.

That was sort of good news for Melissa and Aaron Klein who used to create custom baked goods through their business “Sweet Cakes by Melissa,” and in 2013 declined to produce a wedding cake for a lesbian couple, Rachel Cryer and Laurel Bowman. The Kleins are Christians who believe marriage was instituted as a union of men and women.

According to Kevin Daley, the Daily Caller’s Supreme Court reporter, Cryer and Bowman then filed a complaint with a state anti-discrimination panel. In turn, the Kleins argued their actions were protected under the First Amendment’s free speech and free exercise of religion clauses.

In a subsequent proceeding, state officials found that the Kleins violated Oregon’s public accommodations law. The Kleins were ordered to pay out a $135,000 fine and cease discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. They have since closed their business because of the financial penalty.

A state court in Oregon upheld that decision, finding that cakes do not deserve full First Amendment protection because they incorporate many non-expressive elements, and whatever expression they convey is not imputed to the creator. The court further found that precedent barred the Kleins’ free exercise claim.

The Oregon case is in many respects a redux of the 2018 Masterpiece Cakeshop decision, reports Mr. Daley, which pertained to Evangelical baker Jack Phillips.

Now, here’s the kicker – though the justices found for Mr. Phillips because a state panel displayed hostility toward his religious beliefs, the Court did not say whether conservative religious believers can cite the First Amendment in refusing to accommodate a same-sex wedding. Like Mr. Phillips, the Colorado baker, the Kleins say forcing them to create a cake violates their constitutional guarantees of free speech and free exercise of religion.

"Today's move to send the case back to the Oregon state courts is something of a surprise, because this case had been pitched all along as raising the broader constitutional question that the Justices ducked last year in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case," Steve Vladeck, CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor at the University of Texas School of Law told CNN’s Ariane de Vogue and Devan Cole.

"By asking the state courts to reconsider their ruling in light of Masterpiece Cakeshop, the justices are, in effect, asking the Oregon courts if a similarly narrow basis is available for resolving this case -- even though the parties have framed the case as presenting a broader conflict between the constitutional rights to religious liberty and same-sex marriage."

De Vogue and Cole report Vladeck added: "That it took the court this long to reach a result that, in retrospect, is a pretty straightforward compromise, suggests that there was detailed back-and-forth behind the scenes."

"It's not hard to imagine some justices wanting to take this case now, others wanting to deny it altogether, and today's result emerging only over time as a middle ground that they could all endorse -- at least publicly. And it's hard to imagine that Chief Justice John Roberts wasn't at the heart of such a compromise," Vladeck said according to de Vogue and Cole’s reporting.

However, our friend Kelley Shackelford, president, CEO, and chief counsel of First Liberty Institute, the non-profit law group which represented the Kleins, called Monday's Supreme Court decision "a victory for the religious liberty of all Americans."

"This is a victory for Aaron and Melissa Klein and for religious liberty for all Americans," Shackelford said. "The Constitution protects speech, popular or not, from condemnation by the government. The message from the Court is clear, government hostility toward religious Americans will not be tolerated."

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