Hoteliers who denied a gay couple a double room were breaking the law, a judge ruled on Tuesday in a landmark case involving Britain’s tough equality laws.
Ban on Gay Couples Sparks Court Case
In 2008, couple Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy, who are civil partners, were denied a double room at a hotel in Cornwall owned by self-described devout Christians Peter and Hazel Bull.
Mr and Mrs Bull denied the couple a double room, they said, not because of the couple’s sexual orientation but because they had a strict no sex before marriage policy, something which had been in place since they had opened their home as a hotel in 1986. They pointed out that the rule applied to heterosexual couples as well, as was in keeping with how they interpreted their faith.
Seeing this as an unlawful de facto ban on gay partners, Hall and Preddy launched a legal challenge under Britain’s Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations of 2007 which state that civil partnerships must be treated in the same way as marriages. The gay couple were supported from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). In turn, the owners of the hotel found support from the Christian Institute.
During the case, Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy’s lawyer Catherine Casserley told the court that, “The defendants have entered into a civil partnership, booked into a room at a hotel but were not able to occupy it because they were not in a heterosexual partnership. If you are an unmarried couple you could lie and get a double room, but this is not an option open to same-sex couples. We say the claimants were treated differently to a married couple, and the only difference between them was their sexual orientation.”
Owner Mrs Bull told the court during a hearing in December how, due to an oversight, she had failed to explain the hotel’s married-couples only policy for double rooms when the booking was made:
She explained that she took Preddy’s booking over the telephone when she was ill and so failed to explain the hotel’s policy. “There is no way I would have let them make the journey only to be disappointed,” she said. “We were very surprised when the two gentlemen turned up the next day.
“This is our home; it’s not some large corporation. We feel that under the eyes of God we need to feel comfortable there – and that includes sleeping arrangements.
“We feel that our faith and conscience means we are responsible for what happens under our roof and that the teachings of the Christian faith are opposed to sex outside of marriage.”
Mr and Mrs Bull also said they may close their business should the judge rule against them because their religious convictions, they claim, prevent them from treating gay couples in civil partnerships the same way as they would treat married heterosexual couples.
Judge Finds Gay Couple Were Discriminated Against
In Tuesday’s ruling, Bristol county court judge Andrew Rutherford determined that the hoteliers had directly discriminated against Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy and that, while the law must be seen to uphold the rights of religious freedom of speech and expression, the right to manifest one’s religious views must be limited “to protect the rights and freedoms of the claimants”. As such, Rutherford awarded the two men £1,800 each in damages.
The EHRC, however, was keen to point out that the equality laws work to protect all, including those practicing religion.
From The Guardian:
John Wadham, the legal director of the EHRC, said: “The right of an individual to practise their religion and live out their beliefs is one of the most fundamental rights a person can have, but so is the right not to be turned away by a hotel just because you are gay.
“The law works both ways. Hotel owners would similarly not be able to turn away people whose religious beliefs they disagreed with.
“When Mr and Mrs Bull chose to open their home as a hotel, their private home became a commercial enterprise. This decision means that community standards, not private ones, must be upheld.”
Judge Rutherford granted the Bulls leave to appeal against his ruling, noting that it “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”. At the time of writing, Mr and Mrs Bull have not disclosed whether they will be taking action to appeal the decision.
A spokesperson for the Christian Institute that supported Mr and Mrs Bull during the case is quoted as saying: “This ruling is further evidence that equality laws are being used as a sword rather than a shield.”
Ben Summerskill, chief executive of gay rights group Stonewall, was happy with the decision however, commenting, “You can’t turn away people from a hotel because they’re black or Jewish and in 2011 you shouldn’t be able to demean them by turning them away because they’re gay either. Religious freedom shouldn’t be used as a cloak for prejudice.”