In the eyes of the British courts, the answer is clear:discrimination against lesbian or gay people is against the law, and religious freedom is not a justification for denying equal treatment to all.
In a British example, one married couple who run a Cornish B&B refused to allow another married couple who had booked accommodation to share a double bed, insisting that their religious convictions did not permit them to accept unmarried couples. Their would-be guests, Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy, are both male, and so technically are “civil partners”, not conventionally married. In the eyes of the law however, there is no distinction, as the judge made clear to the defendants, Peter and Hazelmary Bull. He said that he fully accepted the sincerity of their beliefs, but that the law did not permit them to discriminate, and awarded Hall and Preddy £1800 damages each. Expect howls of outrage from the religious right, who will complain once again that Christians are being discriminated against, and that religion is being marginalised in this “secular” society.
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This complaint is patent nonsense. The place of religion is deeply embedded in English law and culture. The British queen, as head of state is simultaneously the head of the national church; a range of Anglican bishops sit alongside the Lords in the upper house of parliament; faith schools of all kinds are funded by the taxpayer; and the BBC, the heavily subsidized national broadcaster, has a range of regular slots for religion programme on national TV and radio stations, as well as additional extensive coverage for specific topical events – as was amply demonstrated during the pope’s UK visit last September. Respect for religion is deeply embedded in the national law and culture.
This accompanies respect for a variety of religious belief – or lack of belief. What the complainants describe as attacks on Christian belief should more accurately be seen as a refusal to allow the Christian religion special advantages in imposing their beliefs over others. If, as the Bull’s claim, their religious beliefs cause them to oppose gay marriage – they are free to marry opposite sex partners, just as they have done. They are not permitted to insist that their guests share their beliefs. (As Christians, they are obviously not Jewish. But they have not made any claim that they will not accept Jewish guests – nor would the law allow them to). The law does not permit them to discriminate on religious grounds, against those whose religious beliefs differ from their own.
In their defence, the Bulls argued that it was the nature of their business that the hotel is also their home – and so they should be permitted to choose who they admit. The trouble with this argument, is that it is also the other way around. They have chosen to combine their place of work and place of residence. Inside the hotel, there will be their own private quarters, where they do not admit paying guests. From these private rooms, they are free to exclude whom they like. The rest of the hotel is a business – and no British business has the legal right to discriminate against people of a particular race, or religion – or sexual orientation.
The tragic irony of course, is that it is not only the law that is against them, but also the Christian Gospels that the Bulls claim to be defending. There is not a word in any of the four Gospels or Acts of the Apostles that in any way criticizes same sex relationships – and a great deal that demands love, justice, and full inclusion for all. There are important passages that suggest specific acceptance of what we would call gay relationships, in the Gospels, and in the Hebrew Bible – and the few well known texts of terror that are routinely quoted to justify homophobia are increasingly being shown to have very dubious relevance.
One final observation:
In addition to highlighting muddled thinking around freedom of religion, this case highlights some muddled thinking around British marriage itself. If, as the judge in the case correctly pointed out, civil partnerships are fully equivalent to other marriages, and the defendants are not permitted to discriminate against one particular class of marriage – then why on earth does the law itself do so? By labelling same sex marriages as civil partnerships, and not marriage, the law provides some superficial cover for people like the Bulls, who insisted that they were in no way discriminating against gay men – but against unmarried couples.
Marriage is marriage. British law should change the language pertaining to marriages between persons of the same sex to make this clear.
- Gay couple wins discrimination case against Christian hoteliers (guardian.co.uk)
- Why the Cornish hotel ruling should worry conservative Christians | Andrew Brown (guardian.co.uk)
- “Religious Freedom” does not include the right to discriminate – Canadian Court (rooting-for-gay-marriage.blogspot.com)
- What Part of the Gospels, Bishop Soto, is “Hard for Gays to Accept?” (queeringthechurch.wordpress.com)
- Penitential Walk, Repenting for Past Homophobia. (queering-the-church.com)