It was the first time seeing her bakery since the new owners moved in.
“This is really hard,” Melissa Klein said, tears filling up her eyes.
Almost two years ago, Melissa and her husband, Aaron, owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa, had to close the bakery they built from scratch after declining to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.
“I did all the flooring in here—this was a collection agency before we moved the bakery in,” Aaron said, peering through the glass window.
The end began in January 2013, when Melissa was home in Sandy, Ore., taking care of their then-six-month-old twin boys.
“It was my day to be at home with the kids and Aaron’s day to be at the shop,” she told The Daily Signal in an exclusive interview.
A woman named Rachel Cryer walked into the bakery with her mother for a wedding cake tasting. Aaron, just like he always did, asked for the groom’s name.
“I’m sorry, we don’t do cakes for same-sex weddings,” he recalls saying after learning there were two brides.
Aaron and his wife, both Christians, believe that marriage is between one man and one woman.
They say that turning down the request wasn’t easy, but not because they were worried about breaking any laws.
“I wasn’t even aware at the time that Oregon had anything on the statute that would have prohibited me from turning down the order,” Aaron said.
Shortly after that interaction, Rachel and her then-fiancé Laurel Bowman filed a civil complaint against the Kleins for failing to provide them equal service in a place of public accommodation.
Then, a firestorm started.
“A group of people—I don’t know what group of people—but they got together and harassed all of our vendors,” Melissa, 33, said.
Their vendors, worried about being driven out of business themselves, took Sweet Cakes by Melissa off their referral list, and asked Melissa to do the same.
Without that business, which counted about “65 to 70 percent” of the family’s yearly income, Melissa said they were forced to close the bakery.
That day come on Sept. 1, 2013, one month after the Kleins received an official complaint from the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries on behalf of the now-married Rachel Cryer and Laurel Bowman-Cryer.
Melissa now works from home, baking one or two cakes each month.
Her five kids—Samantha, 16; Ethan, 13; Elijah, 9; and the 2-year-old twins Everett and Michael—provide easy distractions.
To avoid being a place of public accommodation, she can’t do much promotion.
“I really haven’t been able to do my cakes … not even close to what I did in the shop,” she said.
When Melissa does bake, it’s in her small kitchen, just a few feet away from the garage storing her old ovens, pots and pans as they collect dust.
Aaron, 35, found a new job as a garbage collector.
“From what we were making at the shop, compared to now … our income has dropped drastically,” Melissa said.
“It’s about half,” Aaron said.
Aaron says he doesn’t expect everyone to agree with his views on marriage.
“This country should be able to tolerate diverse opinions,” he said. “I never once have said that my fight is [to] stop what they call equality.”
My fight in this situation is religious freedom. It is the ability to live and work by the dictates of my faith without being punished by the government and all Americans should be free to do that.
The Legal Fallout
The Daily Signal reported on Friday that an administrative law judge for the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries recommended the Kleins be fined $135,000 for the damages they caused for Rachel and Laurel.
The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries pursued charges against the Kleins on behalf of the now married same-sex couple.
The Civil Rights Division of the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries is responsible for enforcing the state’s public accommodation law, and the judge who issued Friday’s proposed order works for the bureau.
“The administrative agency is not a court—it’s actually under the executive branch, not the judicial branch of the government,” Anna Harmon, the attorney representing the Kleins, told The Daily Signal. “[The case] is heard through the administrative law judge.”
The proposed fine will now go to state Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, who can either accept it or adjust the amount in issuing a final order, which is expected to arrive this summer.
The Kleins have signaled they plan to appeal the judge’s ruling.
One question concerning the Kleins and their lawyer is why no doctor or medical expert was present during the hearings.
To claim $135,000, the couple submitted a list of mental, physical and emotional damages inflicted by the Kleins’ action.
As The Daily Signal previously reported, some of those symptoms include, “acute loss of confidence,” “doubt,” “excessive sleep,” “felt mentally raped, dirty and shameful,” “high blood pressure,” “impaired digestion,” “loss of appetite,” “migraine headaches,” “pale and sick at home after work,” “resumption of smoking habit,” “surprise,” “weight gain” and “worry.”
“There was no expert testimony at the hearing,” Harmon said. “The witnesses at the hearing were the two women who were requesting a cake, one of their mothers, one of their brothers and another family member. There was no doctor, there was no psychologist, no expert testimony at all.”
The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries did not respond to The Daily Signal’s multiple requests for comment.
Paul Thompson, the attorney representing the lesbians, also declined to participate in an interview until a final order is issued.
In order to account for $135,000, the state isn’t just going after Aaron and Melissa’s bakery.
“The business is gone,” Harmon, their lawyer, said.
“They don’t have business assets so when we talk about [the fine] it’s personal,” Harmon added. “It means that’s money they would have used to feed their children that they can’t use anymore.”
Aaron said the sum is enough to financially ruin their family.
“The state is now saying that we can award damages above and beyond what you have already suffered … and they have no qualms about doing this,” he said. “It is really showing the state is taking a stance on absolutely obliterating somebody that takes a different stance than the state has.”
Harmon contends the Kleins can win on an appeal, arguing that a cake is more than just a cake.
“I know we are talking about cake, but anybody who has watched TV recently knows that cake is more than just flour and eggs and water and sugar,” she explains. “It’s artwork.”
It’s designed and created, and that is what the Supreme Court has called speech.
For Melissa, who spent five years designing all sorts of cakes in her small town bakery, it’s hard to explain without crying.
“When I do a cake, the only way I can describe it to people is it’s my canvas,” she said. “I get to create something on this cake and I get to pour myself out onto this cake.”
Sweet Cakes by Melissa was a centerpiece of their family, and something that Melissa had hoped to pass on to her five kids.
“I actually had the thought of my kids taking over,” she said, as more tears filled up her eyes.
Looking back, what she misses most isn’t the bakery, but rather, the moments.
“I know this probably sounds really silly, but when my daughter would be helping out, we’d get into frosting fights,” she said, laughing. “Those were just so much fun. I’d just get her and she’d be covered all over her face.”
The Kleins’ daughter, 16-year-old Samantha, has her own memories of the bakery. She started helping in the family business when she was 10.
“It was a part of my childhood,” she recalls. “My mom doing cakes and loving helping her with it. It was a lot of fun.”
“And,” says Samantha, “it was pretty sad to see it go.”