Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Civil Partnerships, Marriage and Discrimination

Most of you will have heard the news yesterday about the victory in the B&B discrimination case. As Pink News reported, Martin Hall and Steven Preddy, who are civil partners, sued devout Christians Peter and Hazelmary Bull for sexual orientation discrimination, after being being refused a double room at their B&B. The case was supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, but the Judge in the case quashed the reports (which I confess I thought were true) that the couple had gone to the hotel originally at the behest of Stonewall to test the law in this area.

The hotel owners, Peter and Hazel Bull, are devout Christians who do not allow couples who are not married to share double rooms because they do not believe in sex before marriage. Mr and Mrs Bull maintained that their refusal to accommodate civil partners in a double room was not to do with sexual orientation but 'everything to do with sex'. The owners said the restriction applied equally to heterosexual couples who are not married.

The case was therefore not as simple as this being a Christian couple who don't like gay people, it was, do we need to treat a Civil Partnership the same as a marriage for the purposes of the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007? The answer from this case was a clear yes.

The Guardian has an interview with the winning couple below.

There is of course another dimension to this case, the Christian couple and the impact this will have had upon them. They consider themselves good decent people. They try to live their life as good citizens. I have little doubt that this case would have been devastating to them. Each day feeling like a week. It's easy to forget in the instant knee-jerk world of cyberspace and journalism that they are human beings but we should resist that easy route. They have honestly held beliefs, and they tried to warn people of their approach to unmarried straight couples and gay couples on their website. Yet, they lost. The law in this area is fairly straightforward and legally, it is quite right they lost. Morally, we do not accept the signs - so common in the 1950's - that B&B's would place: 'No Blacks, No Irish'. It is morally right that we reject discrimination based on homophobia. The trouble with this is what about religion? It remains the elephant in the room that law-makers, lawyers and policy-makers dodge around making pragmatic and - typically English - messy law.

If a moral argument about homophobia can assert itself in the provision of goods and services, why not the provision of marriage services? Why should the provision of marriage services by Churches be limited to straight people? If a Civil Partnership is the equivalent of a straight marriage, surely Civil Partners can - and must - therefore be allowed to marry in Churches. No? One to ponder. The current law represents a compromise between the religious and those who reject homophobia (I am not suggesting all religious people are homophobic), and the question no-one seems willing to really debate is where that line should be drawn, and why it is currently drawn in totally different places on different issues of policy and law.

Finally, let's ease off the B&B owners. They can now get on with their lives. Let's focus the criticism where it is needed - a law that is discriminatory and muddled.

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Alistair said...

It's an enormously difficult task to balance the rights of different groups within society.

This case does not stop them (or anyone else) from renting out double rooms to people other than married couples, only that they need to treat civil partners the same as husband and wife. Indeed, having read through Judge Rutherford's judgment in full it would appear that a claim by a same-sex couple who are not in a civil partnership being denied a room at this hotel would probably fail as the policy would apply equally to both same-sex and heterosexual couples.

Indeed the owners of the B&B would have been willing to give them a twin or single room had they had any available at the time the couple turned up isan important point to note. This was not a straight forward case of clearcut homophobia.

The whole Marriage/Civil Partnership matter is part of that balancing of different people's rights and beliefs. You cannot continually enforce the rights and beliefs of one group over those of another. There does have to be a compromise. These tensions are never going to go away (and they extend far beyond situations like these).

The Law has to, as far is as reasonably practicable, protect the rights, freedoms and beliefs of all individuals. If the Law tilts too far in favour of one group over another it will result in resentment. All groups have to feel as though the Law protects their rights as much as it does those of other people. Thi can be difficult to achieve, but it will mean that gay people, atheists, peopel of other religions and the law have to show respect and help protect the right of a Christian to manifest their beliefs as allowed for under the ECHR.

It was undoubtedly a difficult task for Judge Rutherford to consider that case. It may seem pretty straight forward, but by the time one factors in the consideration to the convention rights. It was an enormously difficult task and having read his judgment I am of the opinion that he carried out such an enormous task with great skill and consideration.

Anonymous said...

It strikes me that this is a very curious and essentially bad piece of law. Whilst I understand that we do not want to get to the situation whereby people become unable to access services (with connections with South Africa, Nazi Germany etc), I'm not sure it is possible to force anyone to trade with anyone else.

Indeed, we anyone who trades discriminates between customers all the time. Shops refuse to serve customers who have been convicted of shoplifting. Bars refuse to serve people who are intoxicated.

Or on a much more prosaic level, hotels may refuse to give a room to someone who look too scruffy, restaurants refuse customers without reservations, nightclub bouncers might refuse entry to someone who is alone. Indeed, publicans have the legal right to eject people for any reason whatsoever.

In that context, I'm not convinced that refusing to service someone because of their sexuality is such a serious form of discrimination as to infringe someone's freedom of belief. It isn't as if there are not other outlets which would serve this couple - and ridiculously, if the hotel had refused to serve them on any other grounds than sexuality, there would be no argument. Indeed, one would think there would be a strong incentive to other B&B owners without these religious scruples to market specifically to homosexual couples.

It strikes me that the opposite of banning homosexuals from booking any hotel rooms is automatically that every hotel should be available to anyone - otherwise where would anyone draw the line? Is it reasonable to refuse entry because of my haircut, shoesize or dress but unreasonable when it comes to my sexuality?

Anonymous said...

I missed out a critical 'not' in the first sentence of the final paragraph..

Sean Hennelly said...

In response to 'thetheologyofjoe', I'm not certain where your point goes:

"Is it reasonable to refuse entry because of my haircut, shoesize or dress but unreasonable when it comes to my sexuality?"

The answer to the question of where to draw the line is not an easy one, but it would seem to me that we can draw a clear line under discrimination based on things like race, sex and sexuality. Put another way, does the question sound silly if I ask:

"...otherwise where would anyone draw the line? Is it reasonable to refuse entry because of my haircut, shoesize or dress but unreasonable when it comes to the fact that I am black?"

The two issues are not comparable?

Anonymous said...

Well, I suppose the issue is enforceability. I have been in business negotiations several times when it is clear that the contracts were not completed because one party was Arab. Of course, it wasn't couched in those terms - the buyer said they had found a cheaper price elsewhere and so forth, but it was fairly obvious in their presence that they were uncomfortable with my friend's race.

Is it acceptable? Honestly, I don't know. In business, you shake the dust off your shoes and find another customer and/or another provider. How are you going to prove race was the deciding factor rather than your smell, clothing, habits etc anyway?

Sean Hennelly said...

Regardless of evidential issues, I would say that it is absolutely unacceptable, in any context, business or otherwise. I see your point that it is difficult to prove motive, in the sense that people can often raise various defences to their actions i.e. 'I'm not homophobic, it is against my religous beliefs' or 'I'm not homophobic, I would treat an unmarried heterosexual couple the same way' etc, but that absolutely does not justify discrimination. Furthermore, a difficulty in proving motive or whatever is no reason to back down and allow it.

As an additional point, returning to this specific case, I can't see how your final point works. These people were turned away because they were two males in a relationship. Their habits, smell etc as you put it have no bearing on this whatsoever- it was a reaction to them walking in as a gay couple.

Anonymous said...

This is true, although in future presumably the hotelliers could turn away couples legitimately on the basis of their appearance. This is my point - in this case the owners stated that they were not allowing homosexual couples. In future they could say it was some other factor and I can't see that anyone could prove it either way (unless attempting to ban all these other forms of discrimination as well). I still think it makes more sense to avoid unpleasant hotelliers and go elsewhere.

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