The Christian guesthouse owners who advertised their double bedrooms as available only to “heterosexual married couples” have lost their appeal to the Supreme Court. The BBC reports the following reactions:
Lady Hale, deputy president of the Supreme Court, said: "Sexual orientation is a core component of a person's identity which requires fulfilment through relationships with others of the same orientation."Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, so the following is a layman's interpretation of what has been reported.
Mike Judge, from the Christian Institute, said after the hearing: "What this case shows is that the powers of political correctness have reached all the way to the top of the judicial tree, so much so that even the Supreme Court dare not say anything against gay rights."
Gay rights group Stonewall said in a statement: "We are pleased that the Supreme Court has defended the laws protecting gay customers that Stonewall fought so hard to secure.
"Some might suggest that, rather than pursuing this case, a far more Christian thing to do would be to fight the evils of poverty and disease worldwide."
This is good news for all supporters of equal rights, and confirms that the religious consciences of those who offer services to the public cannot be used as an excuse to discriminate unfairly. The press release does note, however, that "The Court’s judgment does not favour sexual orientation over religious belief: had the Respondents refused hotel rooms to the Appellants because of the Appellants’ Christian beliefs, the Appellants would equally have been protected by the law’s prohibition of discrimination". The appellants claimed that they were not discriminating on sexual orientation but on the couple's married status (they were not married, in their Christian eyes), but in law since civil partnerships must be treated as marriages, there is nothing else on which the couple can lawfully discriminate:
Regulation 3(4) [of the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007] provides that for the purpose of the provisions defining whether discrimination has taken place, when comparing the treatment of two people, the fact that one is a civil partner and the other is married is not a material difference in the circumstances.The appellants also claimed freedom to manifest their religion under Article 9 of the ECHR. To this, the Court said:
EASOR’s interference with those rights is justified as a proportional means of achieving a legitimate aim: the protection of the rights and freedoms of people such as the Respondents.Obviously there is a trade-off of rights necessary when applying the law, and thankfully the Courts are dismissing attempts to unfairly discriminate on the grounds laid out in the legislation. This can result in indirect discrimination, against the bigoted, but also against those who unfairly discriminate on religious grounds. I assume that even though religious conscience is protected by the legislation, it is deemed subsidiary to the discrimination against the gay couple because in this circumstance the first is deemed indirect discrimination and the second direct. By the same logic, a gay couple who refused to allow Christians to stay in their guesthouse on the ground of their religious homophobia would also find the courts ruling against them.
So this ruling is not evidence that sexual orientation is given priority over religious conscience in the hierarchy of rights (if this reading is correct). Nevertheless, I do fully expect believers and religious leaders to claim persecution based on this result!
The full judgement is here.