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Discriminating Accommodations: The UK B&B Case

21/01/2011

There’s an interesting story out of the UK over the last couple of days: a same-sex couple brought suit against the married owners of a bed and breakfast in Cornwall after an attempted stay in 2008, in which the couple made a reservation at the B&B but was turned away upon arrival for check-in due to the owners’ personal beliefs about cohabitation. The ruling came down on Wednesday in favor of the plaintiffs, a win for proponents of British equality legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Peter and Hazelmary Bull own The Chymorvah bed and breakfast, and statements in an article in The Guardian states that their policy against allowing unmarried couples to share a bed has been in place for the last 25 years. Far from discriminating against Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy on the basis of their sexual orientation, the Bulls argue that their policy applies equally to unmarried heterosexual couples and that they should have the right to dictate such policy because they also live in the B&B.

Meanwhile, the Christian Legal Centre took on the Bulls’ case and has argued that the Bulls’ freedom of religion is the true central issue of the proceedings — not whether their actions constituted a violation of the aforementioned legislation. Because the property is not only a business but also their home, their position is that, as Mrs. Bull said, “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.”

Judge Andrew Rutherford’s ruling is stipulated on the fact that Hall and Preddy, unable to enter into a “traditional” marriage contract, are in a civil partnership — meaning, according to British law, that they are to be treated as a married couple. Therefore, the Bulls’ contention that they denied the gentlemen a room on the grounds of their relationship status is not legally defensible.

Here’s the thing. I understand that the Bulls have the right to their religious beliefs and a right to have those beliefs respected under their own private roof. However, as The Guardian‘s Ben Summerskill deftly pointed out in a commentary on the case, “if a couple choose to turn their home into a commercial enterprise, why should they be any more entitled to exempt themselves from equality legislation than from health and safety laws?” (emphasis mine) If they choose to live where they work, then their right to impose their beliefs on others who walk through their door is only legitimate in those parts of the building that are private — that is, off-limits to guests and therefore not a part of the bed and breakfast itself. Such is true of any business that markets and caters to the general public, and is actually true of any business transaction.

What’s more, this is a question that I’m sure will arise again depending on how precise British equality legislation in when determining protected statuses — after all, if an unmarried heterosexual couple chooses to stay at this particular bed and breakfast then they should have just as much right to reserve a double room as a married couple. They are choosing to pay for a service that the Bulls, as business owners, are committing to provide. It is not their right to impose their religious beliefs in any way, shape, or form onto patrons of their establishment for any reason. If Brian and I were traveling in the UK and wanted to take a weekend at a bed and breakfast, the proprietors of such would have absolutely no right to question or judge our marital status as a basis for the provision of service and you can bet your behind that I would be up in arms if we were turned away simply because we haven’t yet said “I do.”

Of course, in the United States this sort of discrimination in business has been allowed — pharmacists in some states are allowed to deny prescriptions for medications related to procedures with which they disagree, meaning if someone is prescribed a pain medication related to an abortion or if an individual undergoing gender reassignment goes to such a pharmacy for their hormone treatments, the pharmacist is allowed to deny them service.

Long story short, Judge Rutherford made a good decision in upholding the rights of individuals to not be discriminated against, and in noting that a person’s right to uphold their private beliefs in their own home is “inevitably circumscribed by their decision to use their home in part as a hotel.” Kudos to him, and hopefully this won’t be the last example of equality in action — across the ocean or here at home.

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One comment

  1. You contrast this case with instances of US conscience cases. You may be interested to know that conscience cases have turned up in the UK too and were generally upheld.

    This is very annoying particularly when women want to take a “morning after” pill but find that the local duty pharmacist refuses to provide it so they’re faced with a huge palaver of phoning around to try to find a pharmacist willing and able to provide the service inside the 72 hour window within which these pills are effective.

    An attempt to have such “conscience” reservations outlawed by the EU Parliament failed last year, so it looks as if we’re stuck with the status quo for the time being.



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