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Gay Rights Trump Christian Beliefs in Supreme Court

Friday, 27 December 2013

Business owners wishing to run their affairs according to their religious customs should take heed.

The long-running battle between Christian guesthouse owners, Hazelmary and Peter Bull, and gay couple, Steven Preddy and Martyn Hall, has reached a conclusion in the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court refused to overrule the decision of the lower courts which held that the Bulls had acted unlawfully in refusing accommodation to Mr Preddy and Mr Hall.

Background to the Supreme Court Decision

In 2008 Hazelmary and Peter Bull refused to allow Steven Preddy and Martyn Hall to stay together in a double room in their guesthouse, Chymorvah House in Marazion in Cornwall.

The Bulls claimed that they regarded any sex outside marriage as a sin and expected their guests to respect their beliefs; the decision was in their terms a "religiously-informed judgment of conscience".

In 2011, Bristol County Court held that the Bulls had acted unlawfully by breaching the Equality Act 2010 and ordered them to pay £3,600 in damages. The Bulls denied committing direct or indirect discrimination and appealed the decision but their appeal was dismissed in 2012.

The Supreme Court has upheld that decision and the couple claim it has led to the loss of their business and their home as they cannot afford to pay the legal costs. The guesthouse was recently listed for sale at £750,000.

The Equality Act 2010

The Equality Act 2010 specifically protects a number of characteristics including age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.

Although some observers might consider this case a conflict of two protected characteristics, there is clear logic behind the decision of the courts. Although the Bulls were free to practice their own beliefs without discrimination, they were not able to rely upon those beliefs to discriminate against other protected characteristics when carrying out their business. In offering services to the public the Bulls were under an obligation to do so without discrimination despite their personal religious views and practices.

The decision of the Supreme Court reflects a growing body of case law where discrimination claims have been challenged on religious grounds with the courts increasingly following a secular approach to questions that involve religiously inspired moral judgements.

Comment

Although the English courts may have once been willing to entertain the notion of moral or religious beliefs in cases such as this, it is clear that they have moved to secular interpretation of the law. This very much reflects the significant social changes that have occurred in recent decades.

Discrimination of any type should be taken seriously by businesses in respect of their employees, their customers and any other parties that they have dealings with. A clear policy should be made available to all employees and complaints procedures put in place.

For help and advice contact Peter Gourri today by email PGourri@rollingsons.co.uk or telephone 0207 611 4848.

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