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An appeals court in Hawaii has upheld a lower court’s ruling that a bed and breakfast broke the state’s nondiscrimination law when it denied a room to a lesbian couple because of their sexual orientation.
The case stems from an incident in which Diane Cervelli and Taeko Bufford, a lesbian couple, had sought out a hotel room in Hawai`i Kai in order to visit a friend who had just had a baby. The couple tried to book a room at the Aloha Bed & Breakfast, but were rejected after the owner learned they were lesbians.
Cervelli and Buffod contacted the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, which investigated the complaint. During that 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.”
In December 2011, Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit in the First Circuit Court of Hawaii on the couple’s behalf. In April 2013, the court ruled in Cervelli and Bufford’s favor. Lawyers with the Alliance Defending Freedom, representing Aloha Bed & Breakfast, appealed the case to the Intermediate Court of Appeals. Alliance Defending Freedom has consistently argued the religious views of the owner of Aloha Bed & Breakfast should be exempt from the state’s nondiscrimination law, thereby allowing her to refuse to rent rooms to same-sex couples.
In its ruling on Monday, the Intermediate Court of Appeals ruled that the state’s nondiscrimination law was narrowly tailored enough to achieve its aim of preventing discrimination in public accommodations, something in which the government has “a compelling state interest.”
“The Hawaii Legislature has specifically found and declared that ‘the practice of discrimination because of … sexual orientation … in … public accommodations is against public policy.’ Discrimination is public accommodations results in ‘stigmatizing injury’ that ‘deprives persons of their dignity’ and injures their ‘sense of self-worth and personal integrity,'” the court wrote in its opinion. “HRS Chaper 498 is narrowly tailored to achieve Hawaii’s compelling interest in prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations.”
“The court today affirmed that there is no excuse for discrimination,” Lambda Legal Senior Attorney Peter Renn said in a statement. “Hawai`i law is crystal clear: if you operate a business, you are open to all.
“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 added.
The issue at the center of the Hawaii case is the same one being debated in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case before the Supreme Court, in which the nine justices must determine whether a Colorado baker has a right to refuse service to LGBTQ people on the premise that his personal religious beliefs opposing same-sex marriage deserve to be protected. A decision is expected from the court later this spring.
Legal advocates say that, if the Supreme Court decides in favor of the baker, it will essentially be undermining every state nondiscrimination law currently in effect.
“Diane and Ty’s experience shows just how pernicious and damaging a religious license to discriminate would be,” Lambda Legal CEO Rachel B. Tiven said in a statement. “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.”
“I can’t tell you how much it hurt to be essentially told, ‘we don’t do business with your kind,'” Bufford said, reflecting on the implications Monday’s court victory. “It still stings to this day.
“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,” she adds. “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.”
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