Justices handed a small victory to Melissa and Aaron Klein, the owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa in Gresham, Oregon by dismissing a state court ruling against them and telling state judges to look at it again.
By doing so they avoided a high-profile decision on competing claims between gay rights activists and businesses which refuse to serve them on religious grounds, an issue which could have become electric in an election year had it stayed on the court's docket into 2020.
The case began in 2012 when the bakers refused to make a wedding cake for Rachel and Lauren Bowman-Cryer, a lesbian couple who are now married. Mr and Mrs Klein maintain that baking the cake would violate their religious principles.
Rachel Bowman-Cryer had gone to the bakery with her mother. They left when Mr Klein told them that he would not bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. According to court papers, as Rachel stayed in the car crying, her mother returned to the shop and told Mr Klein that she had once thought like him, but her "truth had changed" when she had two gay children. Mr Klein responded by quoting Leviticus: "You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination."
Oregon’s labour bureau said the Kleins had violated Oregon law by discriminating against the Bowman-Cryers based on sexual orientation, and ordered them to pay $135,000 in damages.
The case has similarities to a 2018 ruling, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which the Court ruled that a Colorado baker who refused to make a cake for the wedding of two men must do so.
That case left the decision as to whether a business owner’s religious beliefs can justify refusing services to same-sex couples open, a question which the new bakery’s appeal hoped to reopen.
A state appeals court agreed with the bureau, and the Oregon Supreme Court declined to hear their appeal.
In a petition seeking review of that case, the Kleins’ lawyers argued that hearing the appeal would give the Court a chance to answer the seemingly open questions from Colorado’s case.
“It squarely presents the constitutional questions that the court did not answer in Masterpiece Cakeshop,” they wrote.
On Monday, the Supreme Court chose to pass on an appeal.
The bakery has since gone out of business.
The First Liberty group, which has been representing the Kleins, hailed the decision. Its president, Kelly Shackelford, said in a statement: "This is a victory for Aaron and Melissa Klein and for religious liberty for all Americans. The Constitution protects speech, popular or not, from condemnation by the government. The message from the Court is clear, government hostility toward religious Americans will not be tolerated."