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Oregon bakers pay damages for refusing service to a same-sex couple

Owners of an Oregon bakery who made national headlines for refusing to serve a same-sex couple agreed this week to pay over $135,000 in state-ordered damages.
The Kleins' SUV, reflecting a sunny morning. They closed their shop and moved their business into their home after losing their discrimination claim. (Photo by John Rudoff/Demotix/Corbis)
The Kleins' SUV, reflecting a sunny morning. They closed their shop and moved their business into their home after losing their discrimination claim.

After months of refusing to pay state-ordered damages to a same-sex couple they had turned away on religious grounds, Aaron and Melissa Klein — owners of the bakery Sweet Cakes by Melissa — changed course on Monday and handed over a check for $136,927.07 to the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, Willamette Week first reported.

The payment covered $135,000 in damages ordered in July by Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian “for emotional suffering stemming directly from unlawful discrimination,” plus accrued interest. For nearly six months, the Kleins had refused to comply with the state order, arguing that doing so would set a bad precedent.

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“We feel like we shouldn’t have to pay when we haven’t even gotten due process,” Melissa Klein told The Blaze in October. “We also feel like we’re taking a stand for the next person … that this could happen to. We don’t want to set a precedent.”

The case is one of several fueling the so-called “religious freedom” movement, which many see as a widespread effort to sanction discrimination against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. In August, the Kleins appeared at Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz’s “Rally for Religious Liberty” in Des Moines, Iowa — the first of two such events the Texas senator has hosted in early primary states. (Cruz’s second “Rally for Religious Liberty” took place in November at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina.)

This particular case began in 2013 when the Kleins refused to bake a cake for Rachel and Laurel Bowman-Cryer, a lesbian couple planning their civil commitment ceremony. As devout evangelical Christians, the Kleins argued that baking the cake would have conflicted with their religious beliefs. Soon after being turned away, Laurel Bowman-Cryer filed a consumer complaint with the Oregon Department of Justice. And since Oregon is one of the 17 states that bars LGBT discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations, the state’s Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) — which is tasked with administering and enforcing Oregon’s anti-discrimination laws — ordered the Kleins to pay damages to the Bowman-Cryers.

“This isn't about cake,” stated BOLI’s final order. “It is about a business' refusal to serve someone because of their sexual orientation. Under Oregon law, that is illegal.”

The Kleins became heroes for the “religious freedom” movement, raising more than half a million dollars on crowdfunding sites. Still, they claimed financial hardships prevented them from paying the damages. The couple closed their Sweet Cakes storefront in 2013 and now operate out of their home.

In an effort to secure compliance with the July order, the state presented several collection options to the Kleins and their attorneys, including obtaining a bond or a letter of credit, BOLI spokesman Charlie Burr told MSNBC. BOLI also worked with a private collection agency, which earlier this month recovered $7,000 from the couple’s bank account. Aaron Klein then quietly paid the remainder of what was owed on Monday.

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Throughout the process, “the collection agency was in touch with the Kleins and their attorneys,” Burr said. But Melissa Klein painted a very different picture of the matter, telling Fox News on Tuesday she was shocked to find her checking and savings accounts cleaned out a few weeks before Christmas, as well as a separate account set aside for their church tithe.

“It was like my breath was taken away,” Klein said in a phone interview with Fox News. “I panicked. Everything was gone.”

“We had three accounts,” she continued. “I have an account that’s labeled, ‘God’s money’ — our tithing. They just took it.”

As of publication time, the Kleins had not responded to MSNBC’s request for an interview.

In a statement to Willamette Week, one of their attorneys, Tyler Smith, said that paying BOLI the damages — to be kept in a separate account pending appeal — was the “least expensive option to stay in compliance with the law.” That way the Kleins avoid having to pay additional interest charges while they await a hearing before the Oregon Court of Appeals, likely to take place next year. The Kleins will continue to fight “the Oregon government’s decision denying them their First Amendment rights,” Smith said.