When there is a legal conflict between two people or groups, how does the law decide which way to lean? In a case yesterday, a judge found in favour of a gay couple, Martyn Hall and his civil partner Steven Preddy, who had been prevented from staying in a hotel by Mr & Mrs Bull, the owners, who cited their Christian beliefs as the reason/excuse for of their discriminatory practice.
During a phone-in on the radio yesterday evening, there was equal support for both sides in the dispute and a great deal of misunderstanding. However the legislation is clear, once the Bulls set up as a business they are bound by it regarding their service delivery. They are obliged to provide a fair and equal service for all, not just their chosen few (or many). They have not been told how to express their beliefs in their own home but as service providers, they become exposed to all anti-discrimination legislation.
Messrs Hall & Preddy have never said that the Bulls do not have the right to their views, nor have the Equality & Human Right Commission who supported them in court. No-one has said they are not entitled to their Christian beliefs, though some may feel inclined to challenge them on this -they have not been the victims of any discrimination – their rights have not been infringed. They, as many other Christians, believe homosexuality is wrong and so is sex outside marriage. But I wonder how many unmarried heterosexual couples would be asked by the Bulls to present their marriage certificates before being allowed to take a double room in their hotel?
I believe that this case asks of us an important question that we commonly ask about other countries and cultures. What happens when religion and establishment (the state) collide? We live in a Christian country and our monarch is head of the church. Whilst the Queen’s own government creates its laws to reflect a modern society, it cannot and should not take into account Christian, or any other religion’s, doctrines or morality. So we get this confused situation within our secular, though Christian, country.
There is not a hierarchy of rights and we cannot legislate for one person’s right over another. But perhaps, with this case in mind, we can see the importance of our religious leaders following the state and beginning to modernise their beliefs. I understand how much furore this simple statement might give rise to. After all, this week the Catholic Church has just ordained three ex Church of England bishops who left the church in protest against the ordination of women as bishops. What does this say about equality in the church?
Whatever the religion or non-religion we believe in, surely it is incumbent upon us all to learn to live together and not judge other people. We are all different, and do we not want to be included, valued and unjudged despite our differences. One of the essential messages of my religion is about learning to be more tolerant and accepting of other people, their individuality, their specialness and their difference. If we all strived to achieve this end, our country and world would be a better place to live in.