Persecuting Christians, attacking free speech

My parents immigrated to the United States in 1951, after surviving the tyranny of Nazi Germany and Soviet communism.

It never would have occurred to them that any American, such as Aaron and Melissa Klein of Oregon, would have their freedom to speak, their right to live their lives according to their religious beliefs and their ability to practice their chosen profession taken away by an unapologetic, self-righteous government bureaucrat in basic disregard of the most fundamental tenets of the First Amendment.

But that is exactly what has happened to the Kleins, who committed what is these days the socially unacceptable faux pas of refusing to bake a wedding cake for Laurel and Rachel Bowman-Cryer. Instead of going to one of the dozens of other bakers who would have baked them a cake, this lesbian couple filed a claim for “emotional damages” against the Kleins with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI).

BOLI is run by Commissioner Brad Avakian, a generous financial supporter of Basic Rights Oregon, the largest homosexual rights group in Oregon. This means he has an inherent conflict of interest in the matter.

In fact, emails obtained through a public records request show Avakian and other employees at BOLI worked behind the scenes with the gay lobbying group to organize the persecution of the Kleins through the administrative hearing process. The Kleins lost their bakery business because of a boycott and the burden of defending themselves in the administrative process that lacked the due process protections of a court, where Avakian himself was the final judge, jury and executioner.

On July 2, just days before we celebrated the Declaration of Independence and the fight for our liberties, Avakian issued a final resolution of the complaint. He ordered the Kleins to pay Laurel and Rachel Bowman-Cryer $135,000 for “emotional” damages.

Apparently, not getting the cake they wanted caused them “acute loss of confidence,” “doubt,” “excessive sleep,” “shock,” “uncertainty,” “high blood pressure,” “impaired digestion,” and a host of other symptoms. Of course, they didn’t lose their jobs, their profession, or their ability to make a living as the Kleins did.

But Avakian didn’t stop there. He found it unacceptable that the Kleins defended themselves in the media and -- horrors -- on their Facebook page! Apparently, talking about how they try to live their lives in accordance with their religious beliefs was too much.

By “repeatedly appearing in public to make statements” about the complaint, the Kleins are “liable for any resultant emotional suffering experienced by” the lesbian couple. Therefore, Avakian ordered the Kleins to “cease and desist from publishing, circulating, issuing, or displaying” any communication about their beliefs about sexual orientation and public accommodations. He overruled the hearing officer’s recommendation to dismiss this part of the claim.

America was founded on the basis of religious freedom and free speech. Freedom from persecution like that instigated by Avakian drew many to America, from the pilgrims to the Huguenots. Those principles were embedded in our First Amendment and ingrained in American culture -- until now.

The issue here is not same-sex marriage, a fiercely debated social issue, or whether you approve of it. The issue is that all Americans have the right not only to live their life according to their religious principles without the government dictating what social mores are acceptable, but also the right to speak freely -- particularly when they are being hounded by the government.

Benjamin Franklin once wrote that “freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government; when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins.” With this unfair, unjust, and unwarranted judgment and gag order against the Kleins by an unprincipled government official, that pillar has just been destroyed in Oregon.

 - Hans von Spakovsky is a senior legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation and a former Justice Department attorney.

About the Author

Hans A. von Spakovsky Manager, Election Law Reform Initiative and Senior Legal Fellow
Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies

Originally appeared in Providence Journal