Tuesday 18 January 2011

Judge defines a change in attitudes – wakey-wakey time for the Church

At Bristol County Court, Judge Rutherford has ruled that the Christian owners of a hotel who refused to allow a gay couple a double room acted unlawfully. He said that, in the past 50 years, social attitudes in Britain had changed and it was inevitable that laws would "cut across" some people's beliefs. He awarded each of them £1,800 each in damages. He said:

"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."

The Bull’s, owners of he hotel, discriminated not only against lesbian and gay couples but against heterosexual couples who chose not to marry but live as a couple. If they had refused a heterosexual couple a double room, would the couple also have won a case of discrimination? How many hotels and B&B’s are there in the UK which would refuse to let unmarried straight couples occupy a double room?

The last 10 years have seen a transformation in social attitudes to LGBT people as the judge said. Views that were normal a decade or two ago are now seen as unacceptable and illegal. One of the places where such prejudice is still acceptable is in certain areas of some Christian denominations.

The Christian Institute and Anglican Mainstream will claim that such views are not prejudiced, are held with integrity, and are what all Christians believe. They are wrong. Most Christians in the UK have overcome their prejudice about same-sex relationships. It is a minority who are holding the Church of England (in particular) to ransom. General Synod and the House of Bishops are constrained by the undue influence of conservative lobby groups and the strongly held views of a small number of leaders elsewhere in the Communion. They are doing untold to damage to Christian witness and ministry in this country.

UK social attitudes towards LGBT people have changed dramatically in my lifetime, and the attitudes of the majority of Christians have changed as well. Their faith is not determined by a fundamentalist or literal reading of the Bible but by a relationship with God which is nurtured by an experience of love, truth and justice.

Will the Church learn anything from this judgement? I hope to God the answer is yes, but sadly, I think business will continue as usual. The Christian Institute will maintain that Christians are being subjected to discrimination. So am I, a gay Christian man, along with many of my friends.

The institutional Church will continue to allow itself to be intimidated by those holding what they claim are traditional Christian views which enable them to maintain a culture of prejudice, dishonesty, abuse and corruption in the Church. It’s time for change, bishops and Archbishops and members of General Synod. You are out of touch with the majority of people in this country, with the majority of Christians and with people’s awareness of God. People know the church is peddling a lie about God. That’s why they’ve deserted the Church in droves. God is about the outrageous, creative, infinite possibilities of holy love, not about policing adult sleeping arrangements in a Cornish hotel.

Colin Coward

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  1. Brilliant stated! Thanks, Colin.

  2. I don't suppose an unmarried heterosexual couple would have a case since there is no mention of such couples in the legislation.
    As a defence it may have worked if the couple had not been in a civil partnership. Since they are they ought to be afforded the same status as a married couple and not doing so is discrimination against them on the grounds of sexual orientation. If the Bulls say that they cannot accept civil partners in a double room they are still discriminating because only same sex couples can be in a civil partnership.
    Mrs Bulls statement after the hearing seemed to have been prepared for her by the Christian Institute. It was the usual smoke and mirrors job about religious freedom.

  3. A fantastic post, Colin. I do wish the church would wake up a bit more.

  4. That is a moving and important post, Colin.

    The case that was put, that the gay couple were excluded because they were in a civil partnership, not because they were gay, seems to me to gloss over the fundamental issue that - by the very fact they are gay - they do not have access to 'marriage' and therefore by excluding guests because they are not married, all gay couples are excluded.

    'De facto' they are choosing to exclude gay couples, by adopting a rule for their business which results in unequal access to facilities and services, for people who are gay, rather than heterosexual.

    This injustice is 'built in' to the exclusive parameters of marriage... which is what the B and B owners wished to uphold...

    So in the context of their business, they were colluding and collaborating with an injustice that is at odds with the intent of the law to ensure that people get equal access to facilities and services, regardless of sexual orientation.

    This raises a case for altering marriage law in this country, and making marriage equally accessible to people, whether gay or heterosexual... to align marriage more justly with the rest of the law.

    Of course, if the gay couple had been married, this might still have presented the Christian hosts with a moral dilemma, but at least then, if they still refused, they could have done so on the honest (but illegal) grounds that they don't want gay sex going on in their facilities.

    Either make marriage equal and accessible to all, or face up to the fact that by excluding civil partners, gay couples are being excluded from services, because they are gay and unable to qualify by marriage.

    An act can be discriminatory in its effect, even if the perpetrators claim they weren't discriminating. This is the situation here.

    The gay couple could not, under any circumstances, have access to the facilities. The law in its intent seeks to ensure ALL people have access to business services and facilities, whether they are black or white, gay or straight, trans or cisgendered, muslim or christian.

    That's the sort of country I want to live in.

    It was a shabby thing for the gay couple to have to endure, just as much as if the sign in the window had said 'No blacks or irish'.


  5. (continued...)

    Further to this, if this goes to court in Europe, then UK marriage law itself may ultimately be called into question, because of its implications, in creating situations where it is consequently impossible to comply with anti-discrimination law.

    The Christian Institute, Christian Legal Centre, or others, should be careful what they ask for: they could precipitate the very changes to marriage law that they are so opposed to.

    Marriage in the UK is a civil legal status, not the domain or reserve of any religious group. It seems likely, that in terms of civil law (as opposed to religious canon), an increasingly strong case can be presented for marriage equality, and a change to UK marriage law to allow all couples to marry, in order to conform with other UK and European legislation that seeks to protect gay and straight, black and white, male and female, muslim and christian, from just the kind of demeaning and unjust treatment this gay couple endured, when all they were seeking was the same facilities and services that other people might be given.

    In short, if European law is explored, then it may call into question the discrimination implicit in our marriage law. It may expose the downright discrimination against lesbian and gay couples who seek the same right to enshrine their sacred and faithful commitments and love within the dignity and legal protections of marriage - and thereby ensure that never again are they refused services because they're not married - a prohibition which makes discrimination inevitable, since it then becomes impossible for them to qualify for such services.

    Failure to enshrine 'equal access to marriage' in civil law would seem likely to continue subverting the laws already in place on equality and discrimination.

    This B and B case demonstrates the consequences of unequal access to marriage. It is not just that equal marriage is just in itself: it's that in its absence, it is impossible to uphold the good values and intent of other laws, and people's right to services regardless of their race, creed or orientation may - as in this woeful case - be curtailed and ignored.

    This case flags up the problems not just with anti-discrimination law (which the hoteliers attempted to bypass by resort to making 'marriage' a criteria for theor services) but with marriage law itself.

    Two people love one another. They are faithful. They want to care for each other tenderly into old age. They want equal legal protections and standing as anyone else. They want their love and commitment enshrined in the loveliness of marriage. Why is a heterosexual marriage threatened if a gay couple also commit to this fidelity and love on the same terms? Heterosexual marriage is indeed threatened these days (as divorce stats show) but it's threatened not by 'the gays' but by heterosexual infidelity or other things within the heterosexual relationship.

    Why should a couple be sent packing, like black couples were once sent packing by racist hoteliers, feeling demeaned and not knowing whether the next place will take them either? Just because the law disqualifies them from access, if marriage is demanded to qualify for a service?

    Clearly the law needs to be clarified, so that discrimination does not occur, whether 'de facto' or with intent?

    Without clarification there will be no defence from varying degrees of homophobia. We wouldn't treat black couples this way, these days. It would be unthinkable. And quite right too.

    Susannah Clark