Discrimination: Homophobia, or a Christian Duty?

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.

[ad#In post banner]

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.



6 Responses to “Discrimination: Homophobia, or a Christian Duty?”

  1. Tony Sidaway Says:

    I appreciate your point about the muddle over marriage, but the truth is that with civil partnerships we got gay marriage-in-all-but-name in without a big fuss and now there’s no undoing it. Had the actual word “marriage” been used, this having ecclesiastical and cultural meanings, things would have been rather more bloody and frankly we probably weren’t ready for it as a nation.

    The current definition has clear advantages, and in everyday usage the media and whatnot refer to civil partnerships as marriage. I believe there have been suggestions that the law should be normalized so that there will be just one kind of marriage, but this case makes it plain that it isn’t strictly necessary.

    Still it’s a “nice to have”, and perhaps it would help to nudge British evangelicals out of their stone age attitudes.

    • Terence Says:

      Thanks, Tony. I agree that at the time we may not have been ready for the m-word. However, times have moved on. As you say, legally the case for equalising the language may not be be necessary, and the media often simply things by using only one word, but the practice isn’t universal, which is why the Bells could claim they weren’t discriminating against gays – just against unmarried couples.

      Practically, my views have evolved to the point where I want to see one word for all. Theologically, the issue is more complex. I have been presented with diametrically opposing views by two gay priests, that I want to explore in a later post.

  2. Tony Sidaway Says:

    Here’s an article from last Autumn, by Peter Tatchell who takes Prime Minister David Cameron to task for apparently being out of step with other coalition politicians and the public on full gay marriage.

    According to the figures he cites, there is overwhelming public support for full marriage equality in the UK. I spend a lot of my time following the gay marriage debate in the United States, so this is a most pleasant surprise to me.


    • Terence Says:

      As a UK resident, I can confirm that Tatchell is undoubtedly right. When civil partnerships were first introduced, there was widespread satisfaction that they offered marriage under another name, but there is increasing recognition that this is just not good enough. There is mounting public pressure for a change to full marriage equality, not just virtual. Of the national political parties in the UK parliament, the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens, have all made recent strong statements in favour. Only the Conservatives are lagging behind. In Scotland, the Scottish National Party have even proposed introducing full marriage without waiting for the rest of the UK to catch up. Last year, I reported the LibDem deputy leader’s prediction that we will have full marriage “within 5 years”. I don’t think it will take that long.

  3. Tony Sidaway Says:

    Rather than misleading you I must confess that I am also a UK resident. However I find American politics so much more entertaining that I often find myself terribly out of step with local matters. I vaguely remember voting in May last year, and after that noticing a bit of horse-trading that resulted in a Liberal-Conservative coalition government, but since then I’ve kept a closer eye on the 2010 mid-term elections and their fascinating aftermath than is good for anybody.

    I think it’s extraordinary, on reflection, that many of the positions of modern British mainstream Conservative politicians would probably be regarded as dangerously radical in the Democratic Party. Here the Prime Minister finds himself isolated even in his own party in his lack of full-throated support for marriage equality. The American President on the other hand is frequently chastised from the right for pushing Clinton’s old policy that homosexuals should be permitted to serve openly in the military.

  4. Homophobia, Canada And The Closet | Archemdis's Blog Says:

    […] Discrimination: Homophobia, or a Christian Duty? (queeringthechurch.wordpress.com) […]

Leave a Reply to Tony Sidaway Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: