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Is Alabama next? Bakers to be fined up to $150k for refusing gay customers

Flickr user: Ryan Polei
Flickr user: Ryan Polei

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — In 2013, bakery owners Aaron and Melissa Klein of Sweet Cakes by Melissa refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex commitment ceremony, citing their religious beliefs. Now they are being fined up to $150,000.

There are several similarities to the situation leading to the Kleins’ predicament and recent developments in Alabama. Gay marriage was not yet legal in Oregon when the Kleins’ made their decision not to make the couple’s cake; voters had passed a state constitutional amendment similar to Alabama’s in 2004.

But just as happened in Alabama in January, a district judge overturned the constitutional amendment in May 2014, making same-sex marriage legal in Oregon.

Rachel Cryer and Laurel Bowman, the couple requesting the cake, filed a discrimination complaint with the Oregon Bureau and Labor—the body that is now fining the Kleins. The legal action caused the Kleins to close their bakery’s doors, and the family is saying the fine will likely bankrupt them and their five children.

While there have been no such actions yet in Alabama, there are some who believe the state should get out in front of any similar situations.

Radio host Matt Murphy, who has been particularly outspoken on the subject, told Yellowhammer in an interview Tuesday that he believes Alabama’s legislators should be proactive in preventing confrontations like the Kleins’ from occurring.

Mr. Murphy said he recommends a “Religious Liberties Act” that would “clearly state that if you are in a business which you may be asked to violate your heartfelt religious beliefs in the exercise of your business, you have the right to deny service.”

“I think it’s one of our founding principles, and a founding amendment to the Constitution clearly supersedes, especially when it is a heartfelt religious conviction,” he continued. “In the same way that the Supreme Court is expected to argue that the Constitutional rights of two gay people override the will of the people of Alabama, I would argue (for) the Constitutional rights of a religious person that truly believes that participating in a ceremony like that is going to violate their religious beliefs.”

Examples of protected professions would be cake bakers, photographers, caterers, etc.

One of the most often heard arguments against private businesses refusing service to same-sex couples is that if the business sets up shop in a “public” space, they can’t say no to anyone who walks through their doors. Murphy disputed that line of reasoning, saying “There’s zero in the Constitution that says a private business cannot set up their business in the manner of their choosing.

“So if I decide I don’t want to have people in my business that color their hair purple,” Murphy said, “as frustrating as that might be for purple-haired people, I don’t have to do that.”

Sexual orientation is not one of the federally protected classes enumerated by the Civil Rights Act, Murphy mentioned. If they want those same considerations, he thinks the appropriate tactic would be to lobby for a an update to the federal law. Though, that’s “begging for a Constitutional showdown with the 1st Amendment versus the 14th Amendment,” Murphy added.

With Alabama’s legislative session quickly approaching, Mr. Murphy’s suggestion of a “Religious Liberties Act” for the state could present some red meat for conservative state legislators who are looking to speak out against what they see as federal overreach into the state’s constitution.

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