New York Law School

Art Leonard Observations

Supreme Court Takes a Pass on Hawaii B&B Discrimination Case

Posted on: March 21st, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

The U.S. Supreme Court announced on March 18 that it will not review a decision by Hawaii’s Intermediate Court of Appeals, which ruled in February 2018 that a small bed & breakfast operating in a private home in the Mariner’s Ridge section of Hawai’i Kai, violated Hawaii’s civil rights law by denying accommodations to an unmarried lesbian couple who were planning a trip to Hawaii to visit a friend.  Hawaii’s civil rights law forbids businesses that are “public accommodations” from discriminating in providing their services based on the sexual orientation of customers.  Cervelli v. Aloha Bed & Breakfast, 415 P.3d 919 (Int. Ct. App. Haw. 2018), cert. denied by Hawaii S. Ct., 2018 WL 3358586 (July 10, 2018), cert. denied, No. 18-451, 2019 WL 1231949 (U.S. Sup. Ct., March 18, 2019).

The key issues raised in the case were whether such an operation is covered by the public accommodations law, and whether the owner, Phyllis Young, who lives there and operates it personally, could successfully raise constitutional claims against being required to accommodate a lesbian couple in her home.

Young operates “Aloha B&B” out of her four-bedroom house, and has averaged between one hundred and two hundred customers a year.  She advertises on her own website and some third-party websites.  Diane Cervelli and Taeko Bufford, a “committed” lesbian couple, emailed to inquire about renting a room for their vacation trip.  Young immediately responded by email that a room was available and explained how to make a reservation.  Cervelli phoned two weeks later to book the room.  As Young was taking down her information, Cervelli mentioned that she would be accompanied by another woman, and Young asked whether they were lesbians.  When Cervelli said “Yes,” Young responded, “We’re strong Christians.  I’m very uncomfortable in accepting the reservation from you.” Young refused the reservation and hung up on Cervelli.

Bufford then called and attempted to reserve the room, but again Young refused.  Bufford asked her whether it was because she and Cervelli were lesbians, and Young said “Yes.”  Young referred to her religious beliefs as the reason she was refusing the reservation.  “Apart from Plaintiff’s sexual orientation,” wrote Judge Craig Nakamura for the court of appeals, “there was no other reason for Young’s refusal to accept Plaintiffs’ request for a room.”

The women filed a discrimination claim with the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, which concluded that they had a legitimate case.  Then Cervelli and Bufford filed a lawsuit against Aloha B&B in the state circuit court, represented by Lambda Legal with local attorneys from Honolulu, and the Civil Rights Commission intervened in the lawsuit as a co-plaintiff.  Attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the anti-LGBT religious litigation group, joined with local attorneys to defend the B&B.

Judge Edwin C. Nacino of the circuit court easily rejected the B&B’s argument that it was not a public accommodation, but rather a landlord that would not be covered by this law.  The law on discrimination in real estate transactions prohibits sexual orientation discrimination in residential rentals, but doesn’t apply to facilities with four or fewer units.  While the B&B has only four bedrooms, the evidence of 100-200 rentals per year made clear that Young’s business came within the “public accommodations” definition.  Young admitted that she only rented rooms for short stays, so this was a transient rather than a residential facility.

Young claimed that requiring her to accommodate the lesbian couple in her home violated her constitutional right to privacy, freedom of intimate association and free exercise of religion.  The circuit court rejected these defenses, and awarded summary judgment to the plaintiffs on the issues of liability and injunctive relief.  Since the defendant was planning to appeal, the issue of damages was put on hold pending a final decision on the case.

The appeals court affirmed the trial judge on all points.  Judge Nakamura wrote that “to the extent that Young has chosen to operate her bed and breakfast business from her home, she has voluntarily given up the right to be left alone,” thus rejecting her privacy claim.  Opening up her residence to 100-200 paying guests a year is inconsistent with such a privacy claim.  Furthermore, although Young lives there, the extent of commercial activity means that “it is no longer a purely private home.”  And, furthermore, “the State retains the right to regulate activities occurring in a home where others are harmed or likely to be harmed,” and in this case “discriminatory conduct caused direct harm to Plaintiffs and threatens to harm other members of the general public.”

The court similarly rejected the intimate association claim, which, said the court, applies to family relationships and other small-group settings.  “The relationship between Aloha B&B and the customers to whom it provides transient lodging is not the type of intimate relationship that is entitled to constitutional protection against a law designed to prohibit discrimination in public accommodations,” said the appeals court.

Finally, the court found Young’s federal constitutional religious freedom claim would be foreclosed by Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), where the U.S. Supreme Court held that “neutral laws of generally applicability need not be justified by a compelling governmental interest even when they have the incidental effect of burdening a particular religious practice,” wrote Nakamura, summarizing the holding.  Fueled by ADF’s representation, Young tried to argue that the appeals court should impose a stricter test using the Hawaii Constitution’s protection of religious freedom, but the court refused to do so, stating that in its view Hawaii’s civil rights law would survive the most demanding constitutional test in any event.

“Assuming, without deciding, that Aloha B&B established a prima facie case of substantial burden to Young’s exercise of religion, we conclude that the application of [the Hawaii civil rights law] to Aloha B&B’s conduct in this case satisfies the strict scrutiny standard,” wrote Nakamura,” since “Hawaii has a compelling state interest in prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations,” as the legislature has declared “the practice of discrimination because of sexual orientation in public accommodations is against public policy.”  The court concluded that the civil rights law “is narrowly tailored to achieve Hawaii’s compelling interest in prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations,” as the law “responds precisely to the substantive problem which legitimately concerns the State.”

The Hawaii Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal, so Young took the case to the Supreme Court, posing two questions: “Whether holding Mrs. Young liable without fair notice that her actions could be unlawful violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, and whether the Commission’s efforts to punish Mrs. Young for exercising her religious beliefs in her own home violate   the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause?”

The first question reflected Young’s belief that she was covered by the exemption for rental operations with four or fewer bedrooms, so, as she claimed, when she turned down Cervelli and Bufford she sincerely believed her business was not covered by the civil rights law, and it would be fundamentally unfair to impose liability on her.  The court of appeals had easily rejected this argument, and it is not the kind of argument that the Supreme Court was likely to address as a failure of procedural due process of law.

The second question was intended to tempt members of the Court who have been calling for a reconsideration of the Employment Division v. Smith precedent, which was controversial when decided and actually led to the enactment of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) by Congress and similar laws by many state legislatures.  Prior to that ruling, the Supreme Court had required the government to show a “compelling interest” when laws that burden free exercise of religion were challenged in court.

Employment Division was seen by many as a sharp departure from prior precedents, liberal Supreme Court justices dissented from the Court’s opinion by Justice Scalia, and a broad coalition spanning the political spectrum among religious organizations successfully lobbied Congress to pass RFRA, ultimately reimposing the “strict scrutiny” standard when federal laws impose a substantial burden or religious free exercise.

Despite calls for reconsidering Employment Division, most prominently by Justice Neil Gorsuch in his concurring opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop last June, this petition evidently did not tempt at least four members of the Court to use this case as a vehicle to expand the religious freedom of business owners to turn down customers whom they found objectionable based on the owners’ religious beliefs. The Court avoided such reconsideration last Term in Masterpiece Cakeshop by deciding that case on a different ground.  Of course, if the Court wants to address these issues directly, they still have pending a petition to review an Oregon state court ruling against a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, Klein v. Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, 289 Or. App. 507, review denied by Oregon S. Ct., 363 Or. 224 (2018), so we continue to wait for another shoe to drop.

Meanwhile, unless a settlement is negotiated, Young faces a renewed proceeding in the Hawaii circuit court to determine what damages, if any, she will be ordered to pay to Cervelli and Bufford for unlawfully discriminating against them.

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