Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The conflict between religious belief and civil rights

I love to sit arguing with my mother over moral rights and wrongs.

My mother, you see, has very traditional christian views.

I, on the other hand, whilst being a not particularly devout catholic maintain that personal beliefs should never infringe on the rights of others or mean that someone who doesn't subscribe to my views should be in any way bound by them.

You will probably appreciate therefore that I have been captivated by the case of Peter and Hazelmary Bull, the proprietors of the Chymorvah Hotel in Cornwall.

In case you missed it Mr and Mrs Bull are practicing Christians. They run their hotel under what they believe to be christian principles which include not allowing unmarried couples to share a double room.

In September 2008 Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy, a gay couple who are civil partners, had booked a room at the Bull's hotel. Upon arriving they were told that they could not stay as they were not married.

Messrs Hall and Preddy alleged that this was direct discrimination as a civil partnership was effectively a marriage in the eyes of the law and to be refused a room under the policy enforced by the Bulls was therefore illegal.

This week Bristol County Court upheld their complaint and ordered Mr and Mrs Bull to pay £3,600 in damages.

Now, personally I do not subscribe to the views of Mr and Mrs Bull. I believe that a loving and committed couple can be either hetero or homosexual, however, I also believe that they have every right to hold those views.

The key issue here though, to my mind, is what happens when those views begin to infringe on the rights of others.

Mr and Mrs Bull are running their business as a commercial entity. That entity must therefore be subject to the same laws and obligations as other commercial businesses. A number of those obligations are to ensure that you do not discriminate against potential customers based upon race, disability or sexual orientation, irrespective of your personal belief. That is exactly what Mr and Mrs Bull did.

It's not that long ago since hotels used to show signs saying 'No Irish'.  Does any reasonable person still think that that policy was acceptable even if the proprietor believed that Irishmen were somehow not up to their rigorous standards? Of course not. Times and acceptable standards of behaviour have moved on.

Exactly the same goes for the attitudes of Mr and Mrs Bull.

The rights of civilly bound gay couples are the same as traditionally married ones. Those rights have been enshrined in legislation in our parliamentary democracy and when they conflict with the personal belief of traditionalist Christians it is those rights that must be upheld.

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