It’s been nearly four years since we first became international news after the owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa refused to sell us a wedding cake — and our family is still fighting for the respect, safety, and dignity most Americans take for granted. The threats and hate mail have lessened over time, but the strategic maneuvering by the right to use this case — and our family — as pawns in their cause to protect “religious freedom” continues to impact us every day.
As anyone who has been following this case knows, it is about so much more than “just” a cake.
Aaron and Melissa Klein’s discrimination was particularly shocking to us because Rachel had previously worked with Melissa to arrange a wedding cake for her mother’s wedding. Melissa knew then that the bride’s daughter was in a same-sex relationship; in fact, when we got engaged a year later, it was Rachel’s mom who said, “I know just where we have to get the cake!” Plus our caterer and venue — both of whom welcomed our same-sex wedding — also recommended Sweet Cakes, so it seemed like a perfect match.
After enthusiastically discussing the cake with Melissa at a local wedding expo in January 2013, Rachel scheduled a cake-tasting appointment. When the day came, she and her mom went to Sweet Cakes by Melissa, excited to share the joy of planning another wedding cake together. But much to their surprise and Rachel’s humiliation, they were met at the bakery not by Melissa but by her husband, Aaron, who announced they would not serve us because we were a same-sex couple.
Why didn't Melissa share her concerns two weeks earlier at the wedding expo? Like many observers, we believe we were part of the right's larger plan to carve out exemptions in the law to discriminate.
Within days Aaron was on talk radio promoting his plight of “religious freedom” and claiming religious discrimination. We’re not political people, never wanted this attention, and only filed a claim with Oregon's Bureau of Labor and Industries after six months of relentless media attention and harassment.
Meanwhile, the Kleins quickly became media darlings of the right wing. Conservative groups flew them out to appear at events, Ted Cruz featured them in a campaign video, and their fundraising page raised over $600,000.
In contrast, we became the target of hateful, violent threats and a daily onslaught of negative calls and emails from around the world. Over the past three years, we have received several thousand Facebook messages calling us fat, evil, and dumb — some with threats so violent that we have sincerely feared for our lives, moved houses, and lived in hiding in hopes of protecting our family.
Part of the reason we decided to get married in the first place was to provide stability for our daughters. Before we became engaged, we became foster parents for two very high-needs girls after their mother, a close friend of ours, died suddenly. Lizzy, now 9, has cerebral palsy, autism, and a chromosomal disorder that causes developmental delays. Anastasia, now 7, has Asperger's and stopped speaking when her mother died.
While the case wound its way through the courts, we won full adoptive custody of Lizzy and Anastasia, and they are the light of our lives.
Lizzy needs round-the-clock care and Laurel stays home with her as a full-time caregiver. She had a spinal cord surgery in June, and we’re preparing her for surgery next month to correct a lesion on her brain. On top of our girls’ challenges, Laurel was diagnosed with cervical cancer last year and is also scheduled for surgery this fall.
These health challenges as well as the time and energy required by the case have made it hard to find full-time work. We often find ourselves struggling to put food on the table, and there have been months when we went hungry to make sure our girls were fed.
Though the Bureau of Labor and Industries ruled the Kleins violated the 2007 Oregon Equality Act, they are now appealing that ruling and essentially seeking an exemption from Oregon law. Now represented by C. Boyden Gray, a member of the Federalist Society and former White House counsel to George W. Bush, they filed their appeal was filed in August, and the case — and settlement — will likely be held up for years. The bureau's order for $135,000 in damages also is on hold.
We’ve kept silent for a long time. We stopped leaving the house, opening messages, and picking up the phone, and we even quit our jobs to try to keep our family safe from the outpouring of vitriolic attention that came from the case. Retreating didn’t make a difference, and as we remained secluded and silent the fury over the case just grew. The right wing’s backlash increased as the freedom to marry became the law of the land, fueling the “religious freedom” movement.
At every step of the way, we have felt guilt and humiliation at seeing our name used by the right to justify discrimination. Our family has been caught in the middle. The human cost to this battle is real to us because we are living it.
Despite the United State’s progress with LGBTQ equality, it's clear the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Acts are not going away. We believe religious freedom is a fundamental aspect of America, but those beliefs don’t entitle anyone to discriminate, target, or hurt others.
In recent months we’ve decided to speak out for one primary reason: We don’t want any person or family to go what we’ve gone through. Every family deserves respect, dignity and a life free from discrimination and harassment.
RACHEL and LAUREL BOWMAN-CRYER live in Oregon with their two daughters. To help support Rachel, Laurel, Lizzy, and Anastasia with transportation, housing, lost wages, and other costs associated with the ongoing care of their children, visit their YouCaring page here.