Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Gay couple successfully sue B&B owners who refused them a double room

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Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy, the gay couple who were refused a double room at a Cornwall bed and breakfast in September 2008, have been awarded damages after successfully suing the hotel's owners under equality legislation. Peter and Hazelmary Bull, who run the Chymorvah Private Hotel in Marazion, Cornwall, must pay the couple £1,800 each after Judge Rutherford rule that their actions amounted to sexual orientation discrimination under the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007.

As human rights campaigners have pointed out, this was a landmark case for the equality laws, and in his ruling [PDF] Judge Rutherford made it clear that religious belief will not stand up as a legal justification for discrimination:
"We live today in a parliamentary democracy. Our laws are made by the Queen  in Parliament (leaving aside any European dimension). It is inevitable that such laws will from time to time cut across deeply held beliefs of individuals and sections of society for they reflect the social attitudes and morals  prevailing at the time that they are made. In the last 50 years there have been  many such instances – the abolition of capital punishment; the abolition of  corporal punishment in schools; the decriminalisation of homosexuality and of suicide; and on a more mundane level the ban on hunting and on smoking in  public places. All of these (and they are only examples) have offended sections of the population and in some cases cut across traditional religious beliefs. These laws have come into being because of changes in social  attitudes. The standards and principles governing our behaviour which were unquestioningly accepted in one generation may not be so accepted in the next.

In our parliamentary democracy it is for parliament to frame laws which reflect these changes in attitude or which give a lead to such changes. Whatever may have been the position in past centuries it is no longer the case  that our laws must, or should, automatically reflect the Judaeo- Christian position."
The message, of course, is that times change – Judge Rutherford recognises the sincerity of the Bulls in their belief that homosexuality (and indeed any sex outside of a traditional heterosexual marriage – their policy on double rooms covered any unmarried couple) is a sin, but in choosing to run a business, the couple have a legal obligation to treat their customers in a non-discriminatory manner.

Responding to the news, Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, pointed out that cases such as this are not about restricting religious freedom, but rather preventing discrimination:
"We support without question the absolute right of people to their beliefs but there will be instances, such as in this case, where acting upon those beliefs can be legitimately restrained in order that the rights of others are not infringed. Domestic equality legislation protects people from illegitimate discrimination and so engenders a public space where individual liberty can thrive. The narrative whipped up by political Christian groups around cases such as this suggests that Christians are being marginalised or religious freedom is being restricted, but this is a false and misleading picture. Instead, what we are seeing time and again is the courts upholding the rights of people not to be discriminated against on the arbitrary convictions of someone who does not wish to treat them equally."
Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has welcomed the ruling, and interestingly notes the more general implications for the equality laws:
"If the court had ruled that the Bull's were allowed to ban gay couples from sleeping together in the same room, it would have opened the floodgates to a deluge of similar religious-motivated claims for exemption from the equality laws.

"We could have ended up with some Jewish supermarket workers demanding the right to not handle pork, Muslim restaurant staff refusing to serve alcohol and Christian solicitors declining to represent gay or cohabiting heterosexual couples.

"Businesses would grind to a halt, and social cohesion decline, as religious fundamentalists of all hues claimed the right to discriminate on faith grounds. Our equality laws would soon be in shreds. Discrimination would become rampant again. It would be hugely damaging to harmonious community relations."
Meanwhile, supporters of the Bulls have reiterated their view that such rulings amount to religious discrimination, with Andrea Minichiello Williams of the Christian Legal Centre, a conservative Christian organisation that is often involved in cases such as this, saying:
“Bed and breakfast owners have now become another category of people in the UK who will be penalised if they try to serve the public without compromising their religious conscience. Under the guise of equality, the restrictions on Christians in the public sphere keep getting tighter. We are heading towards a two-tier society where only those who subscribe to secular, humanistic values will be able to operate in many areas in the public sphere.”
It is, of course, all very interesting, and I'd like to hear what people make of it. Personally, I struggle to see how refusing someone a service on account of their sexuality is any different than doing so on the basis of race or gender. That's why I appreciate the "sorry, times change" message that underlies the ruling in this case – if you really insist on holding privately racist views in 21st century Britain, no one can really stop you, but if you want to run a business it'd be a pretty good idea to keep those views to yourself. You might have got away with it a century ago, but not now. Is the issue of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation really any different? I know some people would claim that it is, but I struggle to see any convincing reason why.

Another point that's interesting with this case is the fact that the Bulls' room policy also covered unmarried heterosexual couples. They argued that Hall and Preddy were unmarried, but as they are in a civil partnership, that didn't stand up legally. I wonder what would have happened if a heterosexual unmarried couple had sued for discrimination after being refused a room? If anyone has any ideas, do weigh in in the comments.

Which brings me on to my final point, which is the argument that, as B&B owners, the Bulls were inviting guests into their own home. Again, to me, this doesn't really stand up – if you want to turn your home into business, surely you've sacrificed its status as your castle? To offer a different perspective, the eChurch Christian Blog suggests that "as long as the business receives absolutely no funding from the public sector, then this to me would still constitute a private matter". I'm unconvinced – what do you think?

Lots to consider there - please do get involved with some comments.
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