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Gresham business refuses to serve same-sex couple

A Gresham business owner who refused service to a same-sex couple is facing possible fines for alleged violations of an Oregon anti-discrimination law.

Aaron Klein, co-owner of Sweet Cakes by Melissa, at 44 N.E. Division St., said he was approached by a couple wanting to purchase a cake for their wedding. But when Klein learned it was for a same-sex wedding, he told the couple he wouldn’t sell them the cake based on his Christian belief that marriage should be between and a man and a woman.

“We had done business with them in the past,” said Klein, who’s owned the bakery for five years. “But it’s against our religious beliefs to support gay marriage.”

Now the bakery is being investigated by the Department of Justice after one of the brides, Laurel Bowman of Portland, filed a complaint Friday, Jan. 18.

The enforcement officer looking into the case will determine if Klein’s actions violate the Oregon Equality Act. Passed in 2007, the act prohibits discrimination in a place of public accommodation, including a business.

In the complaint, Bowman states that after Klein learned the cake was for a same-sex wedding, “the owner proceeded to say we were abominations unto the Lord and refused to make another cake for us...”

“We were then informed that our money was not equal...” Bowman added. “This is absolutely unacceptable.”

Klein has until Saturday, Feb. 12, to respond to a letter from the Department of Justice and provide his side of the story.

On Saturday, Feb. 2, after serving hundreds of customers who came to show their support, Klein said he plans to fight the investigation and any penalties he could be facing.

He said he believes the Oregon Equality Act oppresses his religious beliefs and his right to free speech.

“I believe that infringes upon the Constitution in certain cases,” Klein said. “I have the right to exercise my religion as I see fit. But now they’re going to the extent of saying that I can’t even abstain from homosexual union if I feel that it’s not right.”

Religious beliefs, however, don’t outweigh the state’s law, said Matthew Ellis, an attorney with the Portland-based law firm Kell, Alterman & Runstein.

“They have the right to refuse service, so long as it’s not based on race, age, religion, sex, sexual orientation or disability,” said Ellis, who’s specialized in discriminatory lawsuits for the past six years. “Those are things that as a society we’ve said we’re taking off the table. In my view, they’re violating the law.

“You can’t make a distinction based on those protective classes. If he’s based it on those classes, he’s violating the law.”

Ellis added that cases like this have become rare since the state passed law 659A.403.

“You don’t see it much in places of public accommodation any more because it’s so clearly wrong,” he said. “He might as well put a sign on the front door that says, ‘Gay couples not allowed.’ “

Dawn Holt, president of Portland’s Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays organization, which lends support to homosexual individuals, understands Klein’s position but believes Oregon business owners don’t have the right to discriminate.

“I am somewhat sympathetic toward people who have religious views that make it difficult for them to do business with gay individuals,” said Holt, who’s been president of the organization for seven years. “But the way the law is in Oregon, if you’re going to set up a business, you can’t pick and choose who your customers are.”

The Bureau of Labor and Industries often investigates allegations of discriminatory actions by a business. And Charlie Burr, communications director for the bureau, said that if Sweet Cakes by Melissa is found guilty, it could face a maximum fine of $50,000, based on the number of penalties violated.

But Klein — who bakes the cakes that his wife Melissa decorates in their family-owned and operated business — said he’s not refusing all of his business to homosexual individuals, just the sale of wedding cakes.

“I have several gay people who come in on a regular basis,” he said. “But I believe marriage is a religious issue. I shouldn’t be the one to change the definition.”




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