Communication Currents

A pink wedding cake with Mrs. and Mrs. on the top.

Is “A Cake Just a Cake?” The Commitment to LGTBQIA+ Equality in the Marketplace

September 30, 2019
Freedom of Expression

In 2013, Rachel Cryer and Laurel Bowman were denied a cake for their wedding by the Kleins, owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa, because they refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. The couple filed a complaint with the Oregon Department of Justice that was eventually taken up by the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI). Two years after the Cryer-Bowmans were denied a cake, the BOLI found that the Kleins had violated Oregon law and fined them $135,000. The case was recently sent back to the Oregon Court of Appeals by the United States Supreme Court with instructions for the Court of Appeals to consider the case again in light of a similar case last year. It is one of many cases in which most courts have ruled that businesses cannot discriminate against customers who are seeking services for same-sex weddings. In a new article published in First Amendment Studies, Isaac West analyzes the rhetoric concerning this case, using three outlets: Breitbart, Todd Starnes’ commentary at FoxNews, and Glenn Beck’s The Blaze.

West argues that the conflict between equality and freedom is at the heart of the Kleins’ case, and notes that as “abstract concepts,” equality and freedom “can co-exist.” But this case brings into stark focus the potential conflicts when business owners use claims of religious freedom to impede an open marketplace, thus nullifying claims to equal citizenship for members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Media coverage of the Kleins’ case contributes to how the public understands the legal balance between freedom and equality.  

West focuses on how the case was covered by Breitbart, Todd Starnes at FoxNews, and Glenn Beck’s The Blaze. Each of these conservative outlets has a unique style, but all focused on the Kleins as part of a “culture war,” what the outlets see as a conflict between a secular state and the religious rights of individuals. West addresses two themes in the coverage: the Kleins as small-business owners and issues of religious freedom. 

The first theme that emerged in coverage of the case was the Kleins as small-business owners, an occupation that is favored in American society. Breitbart’s coverage emphasized that Sweet Cakes by Melissa was a small business with “a certain level of success, but also not too much success” by frequently showing the strip mall in which the original bakery was located. The Kleins eventually relocated the bakery to their home. Coverage in The Blaze showed the Kleins in “a wooded area,” presumably near their home. The narrative in the coverage makes clear that the case has cost the couple both business and dignity; the Kleins were forced to relocate their bakery, and Aaron Klein took a job as a garbage collector. 

Coverage of the Kleins as small-business owners also emphasized that they were “Christian Bakers.” In photos published in Breitbart, Sweet Cakes by Melissa lacks corporate logos and branding and, instead, displays numerous crosses on the wall. As West notes, crosses imply religiosity but do not convey overt discrimination. By framing the Kleins as “Christian Bakers,” the conservative outlets inject the Kleins’ religious identity into the marketplace. In interviews, the Kleins frequently claim that their views should be “tolerated,” meaning that they should be able to turn away customers. According to West, this “redefin[es] how small business should be able to participate in a tolerant free market of their own choosing” by allowing them to create an unequal, yet public, marketplace.  

Religious freedom is a second theme emphasized in coverage of the Kleins’ case. West argues that the Kleins were positioned as victims of religious persecution in The Blaze. In interviews, the Kleins claimed that the BOLI decision was “intimidation and bullying.” The $135,000 fine resulted in skepticism from a variety of outlets. At FoxNews, Starnes’ commented, “Jeez. That must have been one heck of a cake.” The Kleins described how the BOLI fine would lead to homelessness, even though the family had raised more than enough money to cover the fine. West argues that much of the coverage positioned the Kleins as “victims” of a secular government and as casualties in a culture war perpetuated by the Cryer-Bowmans and others.

In concluding, West addresses the question of whether “a cake is just a cake.” Wedding cakes are central to most wedding ceremonies in the United States. The bakers denied the couple a cake because it was a wedding cake, not a birthday cake or a graduation cake. The Kleins also made clear that they would not have denied a cake for these other life events. Although agreeing that “a wedding cake is always more than just a cake,” West argues that we should consider it as a product sold in a public marketplace. According to West, the ability to purchase a wedding cake, or anything else, is the ability to participate fully and equally in an open, public marketplace. 

West argues that conservative media outlets emphasized the value of religious freedom and the value of small business owners to America over the nation’s commitment to equality. West challenges this narrative and argues that a marketplace of goods requires a commitment to equality. When the Kleins took their business to a public marketplace, “they lost the ability to privilege their religious beliefs over the right to a free and fair marketplace.” By entering the marketplace, the Kleins were obligated to provide service to all customers under the equal protection clause. In conclusion, West writes, “Equality, one of the hallmarks of American law, demands no less than our every effort to assure it.”

This essay was translated by Mary Grace Hébert from the scholarly journal article: Isaac West (2019) Wedding Cakes, Equality, and Rhetorics of Religious Freedom, First Amendment Studies, 53:1-2, 1-21, DOI: 10.1080/21689725.2019.1604246

About the author (s)

Isaac West

Vanderbilt University

Associate Professor

A photo of Isaac West