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Equality legislation pips hoteliers’ religious rights

29 November 2013


Unsuccessful: Peter and Hazelmary Bull leave the Supreme Court, in Parliament Square, after losing their case on Wednesday

Unsuccessful: Peter and Hazelmary Bull leave the Supreme Court, in Parliament Square, after losing their case on Wednesday

THE Supreme Court of the United Kingdom upheld a decision of the Court of Appeal in February last year that the actions of two hotel-owners in refusing to provide a double-bedded room for a homosexual couple amounted to unlawful discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation (News, 17 February 2012).

Peter and Hazelmary Bull owned and ran the Chymorvah Private Hotel in Cornwall. They are Christians who believe that sex outside marriage is sinful. They let single-bedded and twin-bedded rooms to anyone, regardless of their marital status or sexual orientation, but they let double-bedded rooms only to married couples, and they made that plain on their website. Their online booking-form stated that they had "few rules, but please note, that out of a deep regard for marriage we prefer to let double accommodation to heterosexual married couples only".

Steven Preddy and Martyn Hall are civil partners who live in Bristol. In September 2008, Mr Preddy made a telephone booking for a double-bedded room at the hotel. He had not seen the clause on the website, and he was not asked whether the room was for a man and his wife. When Mr Preddy and Mr Hall arrived at the hotel they were informed that double-bedded rooms were for heterosexual married couples only, and that Mr and Mrs Bull were Christians who did not believe in civil partnerships. It was accepted that that was not done in a degrading manner, but there were other guests present and the refusal was "very hurtful" to Mr Preddy and Mr Hall. They left and found other accommodation at a different hotel. The deposit that they had paid was re-credited to their account.

Mr and Mrs Bull denied that they had unlawfully discriminated against Mr Preddy and Mr Hall on the basis of their sexual orientation. They said that the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 should be applied in a manner that was compatible with their rights under the Human Rights Convention, in particular their right to manifest their religion. They offered to reimburse the additional expense to which Mr Preddy and Mr Hall had been put in having to find alternative accommodation, together with a modest sum for the inconvenience. That offer was rejected, and, in January 2011, Judge Rutherford in Bristol County Court declared that Mr Preddy and Mr Hall had suffered direct discrimination. He awarded each of them £1800 in damages for injury to feelings and the extra cost of their alternative accommodation. The Court of Appeal agreed with Judge Rutherford.

In the Supreme Court, Mr and Mrs Bull stated that they did not discriminate against Mr Preddy and Mr Hall on the ground of their sexual orientation but on the ground that they were not married to each other, and they would have applied exactly the same policy to unmarried heterosexual couples. Discrimination against a person on the grounds that he or she is married is outlawed by the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, but it has never been unlawful to discriminate against the unmarried. Mr and Mrs Bull accepted, however, that there was indirect discrimination as opposite-sex couples were able to marry while same-sex couples currently cannot do so, and therefore the policy in regard to double-bedded rooms put the latter at a disadvantage. Indirect discrimination is not unlawful if it can be shown that there was reasonable justification for it by reference to matters other than sexual orientation. Mr and Mrs Bull argued that they should not be compelled to run their business in a way that conflicted with their deeply held religious beliefs, and that they should not be obliged to facilitate what they regarded as sin by allowing unmarried couples to share a bed.

This was a dispute between two sets of individuals: Christian hotel-owners and same-sex civil partners, all of whom had what was called a "protected characteristic", that is, a characteristic that protected them against discrimination in a wide variety of areas of activity. It was a curiosity of this case, of which Mr and Mrs Bull complained, that the Equality and Human Rights Commission had prosecuted it on behalf of a party with one protected characteristic - the same-sex civil partners - against parties with another. The Deputy President of the Supreme Court, Baroness Hale, said that it was understandable that Mr and Mrs Bull should feel aggrieved, and that a more neutral stand of the Commission might have been to intervene in, rather than to prosecute, these proceedings.

The five justices of the Supreme Court were unanimous in rejecting Mr and Mrs Bull's appeal, but three of them, Lady Hale, Lord Kerr, and Lord Toulson, ruled that Mr Preddy and Mr Hall had suffered direct discrimination, and two justices, Lord Neuberger and Lord Hughes, ruled that they had suffered indirect discrimination for which there was no reasonable justification.

Lady Hale said that Mr and Mrs Bull's policy undoubtedly put homosexual people as a group at a serious disadvantage compared with heterosexuals, as they could not enter into a status that Mr and Mrs Bull would regard as marriage. The question, therefore, was whether that could reasonably be justified by reference to matters other than the sexual orientation of Mr Preddy and Mr Hall.

The purpose of the 2007 Regulations was to secure that people of homosexual orientation were treated equally with people of heterosexual orientation by those in the business of supplying goods, facilities, and services, Lady Hale said. Parliament was very well aware that there were deeply held religious objections to what was being proposed in the Regulations, and careful consideration had been given to how best to accommodate those within the overall purpose. Parliament did not insert a conscientious-objection clause for the protection of those who held such beliefs. Instead, it provided a carefully tailored exemption for religious organisations and ministers of religion from the prohibition of direct and indirect discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. That strongly suggested, Lady Hale said, that the purpose of the Regulations was to go no further than that in catering for religious objections.

Mr and Mrs Bull were free to manifest their religion in many other ways. They did not discriminate against non-believers or adherents of other faiths - that would also have been unlawful under the Equality Acts. They were free to continue to deny double-bedded rooms to unmarried same-sex and unmarried couples provided they also denied them to married couples. It did make a difference, Lady Hale said, that Mr Preddy and Mr Hall were in a civil partnership. Civil partnership was not called marriage, but in almost every other respect it was indistinguishable from the status of marriage in UK law, and "was introduced so that same-sex couples could voluntarily assume towards one another the same legal responsibilities, and enjoy the same legal rights as married couples assume and enjoy." Mr and Mrs Bull could not get round the fact that UK law prohibited them from doing as they did, Lady Hale said. The limitation in the 2007 Regulations on their right to manifest their religion was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. That aim was the protection of the rights and freedoms of Mr Preddy and Mr Hall.

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