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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Christian hotel owners claimed in court they denied double beds to unmarried heterosexuals, but do they always?

The Christian couple who were found guilty this week of discriminating against homosexuals at their bed and breakfast in Cornwall have been challenged by the National Secular Society over their supposed policy of refusing double beds to unmarried heterosexual couples.

Peter and Hazelmary Bull

At a hearing last month, Peter and Hazelmary Bull claimed they have a long-standing policy of banning all unmarried couples – both heterosexual and gay – from sharing a bed at the Chymorvah Private Hotel in Marazion near Penzance.

But the National Secular Society can confirm that this policy was not applied to one of its own Council members: Dr Ray Newton stayed at the hotel in a double room with his female partner in 2006. They were not trying to pass themselves off as a married couple. Dr Newton said there was never any question that they should be refused a double bed because they weren’t married – the question was not asked and it never occurred to him that it would be an issue.

“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 Dr 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.”

Dr 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 in Britain in the 21st century.”

Mr Bull, 70, and his wife, 66, said their policy, 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. Mrs Bull told the court: "We accept that the Bible is the holy living word of God and we endeavour to follow it as far as we are able. We have a kind of routine we go through with folk. It is never our intention to offend so we try to make it as gracious and as helpful as we can."

Judge Andrew Rutherford ruled at Bristol Crown Court this week that the Bulls were breaking the law when they denied Martyn Hall and his civil partner Steven Preddy a room at their hotel in Cornwall in September 2008. He awarded Hall and Preddy £1,800 each in damages. The case was brought under the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007.

James Dingemans QC, representing Mr and Mrs Bull, said they had been "vilified as objects of fun" in newspapers for allowing only married couples to stay in double rooms at their hotel. He said: "The defendants respectfully submit that their policy is directed at sex and not at sexual orientation and is lawful. Without the protection of the law they will simply not be able to operate their business."

The gay couple were subject to an unfounded slur. Hotel employee Bernie Quinn hinted that Preddy and Hall's booking was a set-up. "It is not beyond the realms of possibility. I have no proof other than the phone call," he said. Sadly, some of the press took up this uncorroborated speculation and treated it as fact. The judge made a point of saying he accepted that it wasn’t – although even if it had been it would not have affected the outcome of the case, but it would have reduced the damages.

Preddy said he and Hall had booked the hotel room over the phone and were not aware of the policy until they arrived and were told by Quinn they would not be able to stay.

The semi-detached Chymorvah Private Hotel has seven guest bedrooms in total – three doubles, one family room, two twins and single with the Bulls living on the ground floor.

The Bulls legal defence was supported by the Christian Institute

The Bulls legal defence was supported by the Christian Institute while Hall and Preddy were backed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

In his ruling, Judge Rutherford said that, in the last 50 years, social attitudes in Britain had changed.

"We live today in a parliamentary democracy. Our laws are made by the Queen in Parliament," the judge said. "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.

"I am quite satisfied as to the genuineness of the defendants' beliefs and it is, I have no doubt, one which others also hold.

"It is a very clear example of how social attitudes have changed over the years for it is not so very long ago that these beliefs of the defendants would have been those accepted as normal by society at large. Now it is the other way around."

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society commented: “This is yet another example of the growing militancy by evangelical Christians demanding privileges for their followers through courts and employment tribunals. Fortunately, all the cases they have brought to court have so far been spectacularly unsuccessful. The court, as we predicted, has rightly resisted the pernicious claim that exercising “conscience”, be it Christian or any other kind, is carte blanche to break the law. It is just as reprehensible to refuse accommodation on the grounds of sexual orientation as race. Lawful activities conducted behind closed doors are no legitimate concern of those running businesses. The argument that this was a private home is undercut by the fact it has a large sign outside proclaiming it to be a hotel.”

Preddy and Hall said they were extremely pleased with the outcome of the case. "When we booked this hotel we just wanted to do something that thousands of other couples do every weekend – take a relaxing weekend break away," they said.

"We checked that the hotel would allow us to bring our dog, but it didn't even cross our minds that in 2008 we would have to check whether we would be welcome ourselves.

"We're really pleased that the judge has confirmed what we already know – that in these circumstances our civil partnership has the same status in law as a marriage between a man and a woman, and that, regardless of each person's religious beliefs, no-one is above the law."

Ben Summerskill, chief executive of equality campaign group Stonewall, also welcomed the ruling. He said: "Religious freedom shouldn't be used as a cloak for prejudice. For the estimated £30,000 that this court case cost Mr and Mrs Bull and their supporters during the last month, Oxfam or Save the Children could have vaccinated 100,000 people against meningitis in sub-Saharan Africa. That would have been a more Christian way to spend their money."

Judge Rutherford granted the Bulls leave to appeal his ruling, saying "there is little or no direct authority on the issues I have had to decide", meaning the case could go to the High Court and Europe.

See also: Young gay men to be stoned to death in Iran

Published Wed, 19 Jan 2011