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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

NSS raises major question about validity of legal argument used in Christian hotel case

Two Christian hotel owners who were found guilty of discrimination when they refused a gay couple a shared room have taken their case to the Court of Appeal this week. But the arguments that their barrister used to disprove discrimination against homosexuals have been challenged by the NSS.

In January, Peter and Hazelmary Bull, who own the Chymorvah Private Hotel near Penzance, were found to have acted unlawfully when denying civil partners Martin Hall and Steven Preddy a room. The hoteliers were ordered to pay the gay couple £1,800 each in compensation, but were given leave to appeal the ruling.

Judge Rutherford at Bristol Crown Court had said the ruling: “does affect the human rights of the defendants to manifest their religion and forces them to act in a manner contrary to their deeply and genuinely held beliefs.” He had ruled that the Bulls had directly discriminated against the gay couple on the grounds of their sexual orientation.

Representing the Bulls, James Dingemans QC told three appeal judges that his clients operated a policy directed towards sexual “practice”, not sexual “orientation”.

In written arguments given to judges he said: “The Bulls have operated a policy of restricting the provision of double rooms to married persons. They maintain that their policy is directed towards sexual practice and not sexual orientation, so there is no direct discrimination.”

He added: “Mr and Mrs Bull have been attempting to live and act in accordance with their religious beliefs, including the religious belief that, ‘monogamous heterosexual marriage is the form of partnership uniquely intended for full sexual relations between persons' and that homosexual sexual relations (as opposed to homosexual orientation) and sexual relations outside marriage are sinful.

“They believed that permitting unmarried persons (whether heterosexual or homosexual) to share a double bed involved them in promoting a sin.” Mr Dingemans said the Bulls were not trying to undermine the rights of Mr Hall and Mr Preddy and judges had to carefully balance all human rights involved. He said: “The reality of this case is that the Bulls' religious beliefs engage both heterosexual and homosexual practices. Their religious beliefs might be considered outdated, or uneconomic for those operating a private hotel, or both, but it is respectfully submitted that, in the particular circumstances of the case, the Bulls are entitled to manifest them.”

He said if the Bulls were forced to offer double beds to unmarried couples they would “have to stop operating”, adding: “The rights of both Mr Hall and Mr Preddy and the Bulls need to be balanced in this case, the very substantial effect of putting the Bulls out of business needs to be reflected in the balance. The couple‘s rights are not compatible with the Bulls' rights but a reasonable balance is struck by not requiring the Bulls to promote the sharing of the room, which they believe to be a sin.

“It would be unfortunate to replace the past legal oppression of one community — same-sex couples — with a current oppression of another – persons holding the same beliefs as the Bulls.”

He said it was “not a floodgates case” where thousands were seeking this exemption, and added: “Proportionality should achieve a situation where, as far as possible, all persons of whatever protected characteristic can live and work together.”

Mr Dingemans is playing up the non-married side to the maximum. He is reported in the Guardian as going as far as saying that: “[The Bulls] have prevented hundreds of unmarried couples sharing double beds.” Claiming that the Bulls discriminated against both unmarried heterosexual and same-sex couples might well muddy the legal water over whether they unlawfully directly discriminated on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Yet the claim that the Bulls did not rent rooms to unmarried straight couples was flatly contradicted by NSS council member Ray Newton who revealed that in 2006 he and his female partner stayed at the hotel in a double room. They signed the registration book with different names and at no stage purported to be a married couple. Mr Newton said they were never asked whether they were married – and it never occurred to him that it would be an issue.

Mr Newton said: “We made no bones about our not being married and nobody asked any questions either before we arrived, while we were there or after we left. It never occurred to us that this might be a problem in a hotel inBritainin the 21st century.

“I have stayed in hotels with my partner all around the world, from the USA to China and this has never been an issue for us,” said Mr Newton. “We had no idea before we arrived that the owners of Chymorvah Hotel were evangelical Christians or that they had a policy about unmarried couples. It was only after we went to our room and found religious tracts all over the place — including in the bathroom — that we had any indication that religion was an issue for the owners of the establishment.”

Mr Bull and his wife said their policy, which they claim has been in operation since they bought the hotel in 1986, is based on their beliefs about marriage rather than on hostility to a particular sexual orientation.

No date has been set for the judgment to be handed down, but it is not expected for several weeks.

Published Fri, 11 Nov 2011