By decree of the great state of Oregon, the owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa must pay $135,000 to the lesbian couple whom they “mentally raped” by refusing to bake their wedding cake. This was expected, but the final judgment, handed down last Thursday, came with another twist. Aaron and Melissa Klein have also been given a “cease and desist” order, which effectively decrees they must refrain from stating their continued intention to abide by their moral beliefs.
Land of the What-Was-That?
Let’s be clear on why this is so sinister. There are times when speech rights conflict with other legitimate social goods. The public’s right to know can conflict with individual privacy rights. Sometimes threats to public safety warrant keeping secrets. There can be interesting debates about intellectual property rights. These cases can get tricky, and we should all understand that speech rights necessarily do have certain pragmatic limits.
None of those concerns apply here. The Kleins did not threaten public safety. They violated no one’s privacy or property rights. Rather, the Oregon labor commissioner, Brad Avakian, wanted to silence them because the content of their speech. Presumably he was angry that the Kleins’ defiant stance had earned them a potentially profitable reputation as heroes for religious freedom. They were meant to be humiliated and cowed; instead there was a real chance they would land on their feet. So they had to be gagged to prevent that from happening.
If the First Amendment doesn’t apply to a case like this, it is meaningless.
What Actually Happened Here?
Good question. If you want to be even more confused, check out this actual quotation from the judgment:
In addition to other emotional responses, RBC (Rachel Bowman-Cryer) described that being raised a Christian in the Southern Baptist Church, Respondent’s denial of service made her feel as if God made a mistake when he made her, that she wasn’t supposed to be, that she wasn’t supposed to love or be loved, have a family, or go to heaven. LBC (Laurel Bowman-Cryer) who was raised Catholic, interpreted the denial to represent that she was not a creature created by god, not created with a soul and unworthy of holy love and life… These are the reasonable and very real responses to not being allowed to participate in society like everyone else.
Okay, let’s get this straight. These two women wanted Aaron and Melissa Klein to bake their wedding cake. Rachel and her mother came in to discuss it, and were told that the Kleins didn’t do same-sex weddings. Based on this policy (set by people they had never met before that day), the women concluded that they were not created by God, had no soul, were unworthy of love and would not go to heaven.
According to the Oregon Labor Commission, these were reasonable conclusions, based on their failure to procure a cake. I realize that most bureaucrats don’t have advanced degrees in theology. Do you need one here? The phrase “non-sequitur” doesn’t fully seem to cover it.
I’m guessing Avakian knew he was reaching, because he goes on to relate an incredible amount of detail. We’re told that Rachel Bowman-Cryer sobbed for a considerable period after the upsetting conversation, and was still upset the next day. A few days later, she was still “sad and stressed” and felt less excited about her upcoming wedding. She “experienced anxiety during her cake tasting at Pastry Girl” owing to the bad associations. Her mother “credibly analogized” her demeanor “as similar to that of a dog who had been abused.” Goodness.
Presumably, we are told this tale of woe as part of a desperate attempt to make it seem reasonable to award a six-figure settlement over the “harm” of a refused wedding contract. My take-away? Rachel Bowman-Cryer is a mess. It’s sad, and I’m sure there’s a heartrending back-story behind it; I hope she gets the kind of psychological care she needs. But I don’t think the Kleins should have to foot the bill for her psychological issues, just because they wouldn’t bake her wedding cake.
Yes, Words Can Hurt
Here’s a childhood memory most of us have. You were on the playground or at soccer practice, and someone called you a nasty name. You were upset. Some adult took you aside and told you to buck up and get over it. “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you.”
Those people were trying to toughen you up, which was probably good. But they didn’t tell you the whole truth. Words can hurt. Sometimes they hurt a lot. Most all of us have at least a few emotional scars from words that still hurt a little even to remember. That awful break-up conversation. The dressing-down from the mentor who used to like you. Who honestly believes that stuff doesn’t hurt?
On the other hand, those wisdom-dispensing adults did have a point. Well-adjusted people don’t allow the judgments of complete strangers to hijack their emotional well-being. Sure, an unkind word from a passer-by might sour your mood, but it shouldn’t leave you worrying that you have no soul. Rachel Bowman-Cryer knew Aaron Klein so well that her subsequent letter to the commission referred to him simply as “the husband” because she didn’t know his name. That’s how close they were. Maybe this would have been an appropriate time for one of those “sticks and stones” conversations?
Then again, some people just aren’t well-adjusted. Their feelings still matter. We should always do our best to spare others needless pain. And I’m genuinely sorry that these women had such an unhappy time with their wedding planning. I’m not too sure, though, that their unpleasant experience was “needlessly” painful.
Hurt Feelings Are Part of a Free Society
Freedom isn’t free. It costs sweat, blood, and a lot of bruised feelings. This last one is becoming kind of a sticking point for some people.
Is it really necessary that people should get their feelings hurt? Actually, sometimes it is. Here’s something you may have noticed: we live in a diverse society. Americans have a very wide range of beliefs and preferred lifestyles. We’re deeply divided on a number of important questions. Most of us don’t much enjoy being reminded that some of our compatriots regard us as deluded or depraved, but that’s how it is.
For people who claim to love diversity, liberals can be absurdly naïve about the real implications. If I have deep and serious convictions that dictate a particular lifestyle, it almost certainly follows that I disapprove of many other people’s lifestyle choices. Hopefully I don’t need to hate or revile them. But bland “live and let live” sentiments won’t save us from all the discomforts of living among people who disagree so vehemently. Here and there we’re going to step on one another’s toes.
You don’t have to trivialize those hurt feelings to realize that they happen. The only way to avoid that risk is by outlawing difference and silencing dissent. Surprise! That appears to be the plan.
To liberals like Avakian, it’s essential that gays and lesbians be spared any painful reminders that the whole world is not smiling benevolently on their love. But if that’s our priority, freedom isn’t. Just ask Canada.
Think of it like this. We can have a diverse society. We can have a free society. We can have a society in which people in particular protected classes don’t have to worry about having their feelings hurt. But we can’t have all three of those things.
What Does It Mean to Be a Free Country?
Here’s what it doesn’t mean: that you can do what you want without consequences. Some liberals seem to suppose that religious freedom appeals are just a nice way of saying, “I can break laws with impunity so long as God told me to.” That’s really not it at all.
Every reasonable person appreciates that there are limits to how far religious belief can be accommodated. Is it too much to ask, though, that we at least try? Don’t we want people to have the opportunity to live lives of integrity in accord with their deepest convictions? That’s the kind of freedom I want. I’d like my fellow citizens to enjoy the same.
To preserve that kind of freedom in a pluralistic society, we have to think carefully about the conflicts that arise. How substantially was Rachel Bowman-Cryer really “burdened” by the need to find another baker? As we’ve seen, this can only be seen as a significant burden if we blame Aaron Klein for the ocean of insecurities into which he unwittingly tripped. If she’d been emotionally healthy when she walked into the shop, she could have walked right back out and carried on with her life unhindered. If gays and lesbians were regularly getting evicted from ordinary shops and restaurants for being gay, that would be a different matter. But that’s not happening, nor will it.
This was a special case, not only because it was a wedding, but also because the requested contribution was an artistic creation. If Sam’s Club refused to sell napkins for lesbian weddings, that would be a very different situation. Napkins are a generic, mass-produced item; you can sell them without asking about their intended use. But a wedding cake is special and unique. A good baker should take pride in adding a note of beauty and class to such an important occasion. I can remember conversing with a baker about the colors, style, and mood of my wedding, so he could make a cake that would capture our particular spirit.
That’s presumably the kind of relationship the Kleins wanted with their clients. That’s why it seemed like a violation of personal integrity to create a cake for an event they could not in good conscience help celebrate.
Is that the America we want to be now? One where people are forced to shutter their businesses to preserve their personal integrity? Where they’re silenced and bullied by the law for the sake of humoring the hypersensitive? It’s something to reflect on, as we think back over the nearly 240 years of our republic. Freedom is hard sometimes. Some of our compatriots seem to have had enough.
This article has been edited to correct the spelling of “Bowman-Cryer.”