‘Now some people are more equal than others’: Despair of Christian hotel owners penalised for turning away gays
- Hotel owner Hazelmary Bull: ‘Much is said about “equality and diversity” but it seems some people are more equal than others’
- Judge: ‘It is a very clear example of how social attitudes have changed’
- Case brought by taxpayer-funded Equality and Human Rights Commission
- Hotel owners facing financial ruin after they are ordered to pay costs
Two Christian hotel owners punished for refusing a bed to a gay couple claimed yesterday that their religion is being suppressed. Peter and Hazelmary Bull said Christianity had been pushed to the margins of society, and added: ‘Some people are more equal than others.’ They spoke out after a landmark court decision awarded £1,800 each to civil partners Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy, who were denied a double room under the Bulls’ policy of allowing only married couples to share a bed in the hotel that is also their home.
The ruling by a judge in Bristol sealed the supremacy of gay rights over Christian belief under the Sexual Orientation Regulations pushed through by Tony Blair four years ago.
The laws prevent discrimination against homosexuals by businesses and state organizations, but have had the knock-on effect of requiring Christians who run small concerns to set their principles and beliefs aside if they wish to stay in business.
And Judge Andrew Rutherford also broke new ground by insisting that in the eyes of the law there is no difference between a civil partnership and a marriage.
Although civil partnership conveys precisely the same rights and privileges on a gay couple as marriage does on heterosexuals, the Labour ministers who introduced civil partnerships always said they were merely contracts and did not amount to marriage.
But the judge said: ‘There is no material difference between marriage and a civil partnership.’
His ruling may lead to a long legal battle if the Bulls appeal, with a possibility that the case will go as far as the country’s highest tribunal, the Supreme Court.
The Bulls were sued over their married-only policy on double beds. They were ordered to pay each of the victims £1,800 in compensation for the ‘hurt and embarrassment they suffered’. Outside court, Mrs Bull said the verdict had serious implications for the religious liberty of Christians who would be forced to act against ‘deeply and genuinely held beliefs’.
The 66-year-old and her husband, 70, live at the seven-bedroom Chymorvah Private Hotel near Penzance, Cornwall, and have only ever allowed married couples to share a double room since they opened for business 25 years ago.
They had accepted a booking for a double room from Mr Preddy, 38, believing he would be staying with his wife. It was only when he arrived at the £80-a-night hotel with his 46-year-old civil partner that they were turned away.
IT workers Mr Preddy and Mr Hall described themselves as feeling ‘angry and humiliated’ and contacted police, who helped them find alternative accommodation. The two men deny suggestions that their booking was a set-up on behalf of gay rights group Stonewall, which had previously written to the hotel owners about their rules.
Mrs Bull said: ‘Our double-bed policy was based on our sincere beliefs about marriage, not hostility to anybody. It was applied equally and consistently to unmarried heterosexual couples and homosexual couples, as the judge accepted.’ She left Bristol County Court to visit her husband in hospital where he was due to have triple heart bypass surgery yesterday.
Their legal battle was aided by the Christian Institute think tank, while Mr Preddy and Mr Hall were supported by the taxpayer-funded state equality body the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Mr and Mrs Bull, who have previously admitted they are struggling to pay debts, are facing financial ruin after being ordered to pay most of the costs of the commission.
Mr Hall and Mr Preddy, from Bristol, had asked for £5,000 damages, claiming sexual orientation discrimination. In his 12-page ruling, Judge Rutherford said that in the past 50 years social attitudes had changed. He added that the Bulls ‘have the right to manifest their religion or beliefs’ and said both sides in the case ‘hold perfectly honorable and respectable, albeit wholly contrary, views’.
However, he concluded that the Bulls ‘discriminate on the basis of marital status’. ‘There is no material difference between marriage and a civil partnership. If that is right, then upon what basis do the defendants draw a distinction if it is not on sexual orientation? The only conclusion which can be drawn is that the refusal to allow [the claimants] to occupy the double room which they had booked was because of their sexual orientation and that this is direct discrimination.’
Mr Preddy said: ‘The judge has confirmed what we already know – that in these circumstances our civil partnership has the same status in law as a marriage between a man and a woman, and that, regardless of each person’s religious beliefs, no one is above the law.’ Keith Porteous Wood, of the National Secular Society, said: ‘The court has resisted the pernicious claim that exercising conscience, be it Christian or any other kind, is a carte blanche to defy the law.’
But Mike Judge, of the Christian Institute, said: ‘This ruling is further evidence that equality laws are being used as a sword rather than a shield. Christians are being sidelined.’ Read more:
JUDGE: CLEAR EXAMPLE OF HOW SOCIAL ATTITUDES HAVE CHANGED
In his ruling, Judge Rutherford said that, in the last 50 years, social attitudes in Britain had changed. We live today in a parliamentary democracy. Our laws are made by the Queen in Parliament,’ the judge said. ‘It is inevitable that such laws will from time to time cut across deeply held beliefs of individuals and sections of society for they reflect the social attitudes and morals prevailing at the time that they are made.
‘In the last 50 years there have been many such instances – the abolition of capital punishment; the abolition of corporal punishment in schools; the decriminalization of homosexuality and of suicide; and on a more mundane level the ban on hunting and on smoking in public places. ‘All of these – and they are only examples – have offended sections of the population and in some cases cut across traditional religious beliefs.
‘These laws have come into being because of changes in social attitudes. The standards and principles governing our behavior which were unquestioningly accepted in one generation may not be so accepted in the next. ‘I am quite satisfied as to the genuineness of the defendants’ beliefs and it is, I have no doubt, one which others also hold.
‘It is a very clear example of how social attitudes have changed over the years for it is not so very long ago that these beliefs of the defendants would have been those accepted as normal by society at large. Now it is the other way around.’
SO WAS IT A STING BY ACTIVISTS?
What began with a simple phone call to book a hotel room by Mr Preddy ended with a ground-breaking legal ruling and the start of a huge debate. Mr Preddy decided to book the trip away with his partner Mr Hall and spoke with Mrs Bull. Mrs Bull later admitted she forgot to ask the ‘usual’ questions when speaking to Mr Preddy on the phone and assumed he would arrive with Mrs Preddy.
But when the men arrived in September 2008, they were turned away by hotel employee Bernie Quinn. It was at this stage that the owners feared they were the victims of a sting set up to instigate the legal case. They claimed in court that they feared the gay rights group Stonewall was behind the men staying at their hotel because they received a letter from the organization criticizing their policy a month before the couple made their booking. Mr Quinn also hinted in court that the incident was set-up. ‘It is not beyond the realms of possibility. I have no proof other than the phone call,’ he said.
The gay couple immediately reported the incident to police and within months began a county court action for damages. But the judge said he could see no evidence of such a sting operation and added that damages would have been greatly reduced if that was so. He said: ‘There was a suggestion in the course of the case, and indeed in some newspaper reports prior to the case, that the defendants were “set up” by the claimants with the assistance of an organization such as Stonewall. ‘If this were true then, while it would not of itself defeat a discrimination claim, it would very materially affect the issue of damages.