Gag-rule drama: Oregon 'Sweet Cakes' story needs fresher, in-depth treatment

On the heels of the Supreme Court’s June 26 5-4 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states comes a ruling by Oregon’s state labor commissioner lowering the boom on a couple who refused to bake a wedding cake for two lesbians in early 2013.

This is a really interesting church-state story and numerous readers have emailed your GetReligionistas asking when we would deal with it. Once again, the goal is to look at the coverage of this issue, not the issue itself. Let's give that a try.

Here is how The Oregonian worded it:

The owners of a shuttered Gresham bakery must pay $135,000 in damages to a lesbian couple for refusing to make them a wedding cake, the state's top labor official said Thursday.
State Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian ordered Aaron and Melissa Klein to pay the women for emotional and mental suffering that resulted from the denial of service. The Kleins had cited their Christian beliefs against same-sex marriage in refusing to make the cake.
Avakian's ruling upheld a preliminary finding earlier this year that the Kleins, owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa, had discriminated against the Portland couple on the basis of their sexual orientation.
The case ignited a long-running skirmish in the nation's culture wars, pitting civil rights advocates against religious freedom proponents who argued business owners should have the right to refuse services for gay and lesbian weddings.

I looked at a previous story by the same reporter on April 24 and here’s how the lead sentence ran there:

The lesbian couple turned away by a Gresham bakery that refused to make them a wedding cake for religious reasons should receive $135,000 in damages for their emotional suffering, a state hearings officer says.

Notice the crucial difference?

The April 24 story included three words: for religious reasons that the July 2 story did not.

Why was this clause left out? The earlier article at least threw in the religious freedom component that’s an essential part of the bakers’ defense. If the lesbian couple is going to get the key element of their case (emotional suffering) up high in the piece, so should the couple that owns the bakery. It’s true the latter’s reason for refusing to bake the cake -- their Christian beliefs -- make it into the second paragraph. However, in terms of the lead, framing is everything.

To prepare for this commentary, I waded through a lengthy ruling by the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) Commissioner Brad Avakian that is a must-read if you want background on this case. Fortunately, the Oregonian linked to it along with the July 2 piece.

There’s a bunch of details that I’ve not seen published elsewhere. Although the plaintiffs alleged a long list of mental pain and suffering as a result of being turned down by this bakery, they wasted no time filing a complaint with the Oregon Department of Justice (DOJ) that same day. This couple alleges severe injury, including "torture" because of their treatment by the bakery, which might lead one to ask how such traumatized parties managed to assemble a complaint in the space of a few hours.

In the several Oregonian stories I've managed to find on this topic (and there are a bunch), I've not seen this pointed out. And the lesbian couple claimed not to see a notice on the DOJ site informing them their complaint would be a public record; hence their amazement about two weeks later when it hit the media. It turns out the plaintiffs were in such a hurry to lodge a complaint, they did it off someone's iPhone, which didn't show the notice on the digital display of the DOJ site.

Because the labor bureau levied such a huge judgment ($135,000) against the bakery, it should be pointed out the lesbians’ emotional suffering was partly due to the media exposure they triggered by filing the complaint. Some of this was alluded to in a March 13 piece in the Oregonian, plus questions about Avakian’s impartiality were brought up in this story.

The Daily Signal, an online publication overseen by the Heritage Foundation, had a similar story, which includes a lot more public records and details than did the Oregonian. I should note the Oregonian reported on accusations about Avakian’s conflicts of interest last summer.
In an April 15 story, the same reporter polled four other local bakeries -- two of them owned by Christians -- to see what they would do if a gay couple tried to do business with them. Not surprisingly, all the bakers said they’d serve a homosexual couple.

Was the writer seriously thinking anyone would be crazy enough to tell a newspaper reporter otherwise? Look what happened when the Indiana owners of Memories Pizza denied service to no one but told a reporter they could not in good conscience cater a gay wedding? In the April 15 story, the Oregonian put “religious freedom” in quotes in the headline and throughout the story for reasons that are unclear. Quote marks, of course, are employed when you’re directly quoting someone, not questioning an entire concept. The July 2 story didn’t use such quote marks, often called "scare quotes" in the trade.

 One other clarification that would have helped: Since other media are noting that Avakian has laid a gag order on this couple, the Oregonian could address this. I read the same passage (on p. 42-43 of the ruling) and it appears that Avakian is only telling them not to discriminate against gays. It didn’t read that they’re not allowed to speak about the case in any context. Do read the (admittedly convoluted) wording to see if you agree.

Finally, a personal note: For those of you who know something about Oregon journalism, it’s no secret that I have a brother who writes for the Oregonian. We’ve not discussed this topic and I’m not speaking for him in any way. In May, the newspaper ran an editorial about the $135,000 judgment, calling it "excessive." While hardly complimentary about the bakers, the newspaper blamed BOLI for allowing the controversy to become "another scorched-earth battleground in the nation's culture wars."

As I’ve gone over various links posted about this case over the past two years, I’m surprised there’s been no major take-out on this story by the MSM. Where’s the profile in the New Yorker, the Washington Post, New York Times or the Los Angeles Times or the Atlantic? There’s enough documentation, drama and twists in this narrative to make for a novel.

Were the shoe on the other foot, would there be more national coverage, take-outs and profiles? As for the Oregonian, this Gresham bakery has turned into a huge battle. Where is the team of reporters and photographers who can take a fresh look at this narrative and the many characters involved and give it the in-depth treatment it deserves? So far, it's mainly been one reporter handling this saga that has produced at least 31 articles, not including editorials. The paper has won Pulitzers on plenty of other topics. In light of the Supreme Court ruling, surely it can put forth renewed effort on this one.

Please respect our Commenting Policy