Hawai'i Appeals Court Rejects Religious Justification for B&B that Refused Room to Lesbian Couple

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February 23, 2018
Taeko Bufford and Diane Cervelli

The Intermediate Court of Appeals of the State of Hawai`i affirmed a lower court ruling against a Hawai`i bed and breakfast that denied a room to a lesbian couple because of their sexual orientation.

Aloha Bed & Breakfast, whose owner says same-sex relationships “defile our land,” is represented by the anti-LGBT legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, which has claimed a religious justification for the discrimination. The issue of whether religion gives a business a right to discriminate is also at issue in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The court today affirmed that there is no excuse for discrimination,” Lambda Legal Senior Attorney Peter Renn said. “Hawai`i law is crystal clear: if you operate a business, you are open to all.” State law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. “The court saw this case for what it was and rightly refused to allow the business owner to use religion as a fig leaf for discrimination,” Renn said.

In December 2011, Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit in the First Circuit Court of Hawai`i on behalf of Diane Cervelli and Taeko (Ty) Bufford, a lesbian couple who had been denied a room at Aloha Bed & Breakfast in Hawai`i Kai. The couple had contacted the B&B because it was near the home of a close friend who had just had a baby. However, when the B&B owner learned Diane and Ty are a same-sex couple, she refused to rent them a room.

Diane and Ty contacted the Hawai`i Civil Rights Commission (HCRC), and in the course of the subsequent HCRC investigation, the owner admitted that she turned the couple away because they were lesbians, stating that she believed same-sex relationships are “detestable” and that they “defile our land.”

The First Circuit Court ruled for Cervelli and Bufford in April 2013, and Aloha B&B then appealed to the Intermediate Court of Appeals.

The lawyers for Aloha B&B have argued throughout the case that the religious views of the business owner permit the business to refuse to rent a room to a same-sex couple. The trial court rejected that argument and the appeals court today again rejected that argument.

“I can’t tell you how much it hurt to be essentially told, ‘we don’t do business with your kind.’ It still stings to this day,” Bufford said. “We thought the days when business owners would say ‘we’re open to the public – but not to you’ was a thing of the past. You don’t have to change your beliefs, but you do have to follow the law just as everyone else does. No one should have to experience what we experienced, and we’re grateful the courts in Hawai`i have agreed. It terrifies me to think of what might happen if the U.S. Supreme Court were to decide that businesses do have a religious license to discriminate,” the issue at stake in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

“Diane and Ty’s experience shows just how pernicious and damaging a religious license to discriminate would be,” Lambda Legal CEO Rachel B. Tiven explained. “There is no limit to the places where LGBT people would be harmed if businesses were granted the right to discriminate. It would gut anti-discrimination laws and could turn every-day, routine events into nightmares of denial, rejection and stigmatization for LGBT people.”

Lambda Legal filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Masterpiece Cakeshop, marshaling a broad range of examples that painfully and powerfully demonstrate the discrimination LGBT people already experience from cradle to grave.