Saturday 28 September 2013

My thoughts on cases involving Christian B&B owners ...

I often get asked for my opinion on the legal cases involving Christian business owners & equality legislation. I think it's a sort of spiritual litmus test that the askers (sometimes students, sometimes strangers, sometimes Christian, sometimes not) use to gauge my theological views, without directly asking me if I'm gay, or pro-gay.

There has been much publicity around the case of Peter & Hazelmary Bull, the Christian B&B owners who turned away Steven Preddy and Martyn Hall, a gay couple who are in a Civil Partnership, because they didn't allow unmarried couples to share a room (for eg., here are links in the Huffington Post & the Pink News). There was also a lot of publicity around the case of Susanne Wilkinson, a B&B owner in Berkshire who turned awayMichael Black and John Morgan, a gay couple on the basis of their sexuality.

Susanne Wilkinson's case happened about a year before the Bulls', so I'll focus more on the Bulls, as their case is more recent. The Bulls argued that they turned Steven & Martyn away because they have a policy of not allowing unmarried couples to share a room in their B&B, and Steven & Martyn weren't married, therefore were turned away.  The problem with that is that that in itself is illegal ... you can't turn away unmarried couples if you run a B&B, but even more so, because Steven & Martyn were as married as they could legally be at the time as a gay couple. They were a legally committed couple, in a monogamous relationship, and yet were still turned away.  This suggests that they were turned away for being gay, which is also illegal.

The case presents an interesting dilemma for Conservative Evangelical Christians who argued that there was no need for Equal Marriage, because Civil Partnerships offered the same privileges and protections as marriage.  If that was true (Which it isn't! This video explains the differences!), then Peter & Hazelmary Bull should've permitted Steven & Martyn to stay in the room they'd booked, as they were in a committed Civil Partnership, which Conservative Evangelicals argued was the legal equivalent of marriage. The fact that Peter & Hazelmary Bull made a distinction between Civil Partnerships & Marriage shows exactly why the right of Marriage had to be extended to all, regardless of gender preference or gender identity, to prevent committed gay couples from treated as second class citizens.

As a result of the legal findings, there has been an outcry from Conservative Christian groups in defence of the Bulls, stating that they should be allowed to choose who stays in 'their home', without having their faith attacked.

The problem is this ... a B&B is NOT your home. It's a hospitality business, and - as such - has to adhere to equality legislation which protects the public against discrimination. It was also not the Bulls' faith which was under attack, but their decision to use their faith to discriminate against someone for being who they are.  The Bulls (& any other person of faith who runs a business - hospitality or otherwise) can believe whatever they want. Their beliefs can influence their own lives, and even guide their moral code, but they absolutely cannot use that turn away people, just on the basis of who they are, whether that be gay, bi, trans, White, Black, Asian, British, foreign, Muslim, Sikh, or anything else that may not fit with their belief system.

If the Bulls are legally allowed to turn away gay couples from their B&B, it opens the doors for business owners everywhere to use their faith to deny services or products to innocent people.  That means that we could end up with conservative people of various faiths refusing to serve people of another faith, gender or race group on the basis of their faith, using historic scriptures about gender laws, dress codes, faith battles, unclean people, chosen races, mixing with unbelievers, etc., etc.. Why stop there? If we allow believers to exclude customers who don't fit their belief system, why shouldn't we allow business owners from conservative political groups to refuse to sell to foreigners or non-whites, because they sincerely believe these groups are not good for their country (even if it is mistaken, misinformed and bigoted, it could be a belief as firm as any faith)?

The answer is, of course, 'no' ... Peter & Hazelmary Bull and Susanne Wilkinson and their contemporaries have to adhere to the law and offer the same services and products to all members of the public, regardless of faith, gender, gender orientation, relationship status, age, race, language, etc., etc..

If the Bulls & Mrs Wilkinson and any other Christian B&B owners want to be able to use their faith to turn people away, then the only way I can think that they may be able to do that, is to re-brand their business as a retreat house serving only Christians (They would have to limit themselves even more to only serving Conservative, Evangelical Christians, at that, because there are plenty of Christian business owners who believe in inclusion & equality). If they do that, then they cannot advertise themselves as a B&B.  If they do advertise themselves as a B&B, then that B&B is not your personal family home. You may happen to live on the premises, but the only bit that is actually your home is the private apartment bit you live in, separated from the public bedrooms ... The rest is a place of business.

I'm sure the Bulls are a lovely couple, who are acting with the best of intentions, but their actions are being informed by a Conservative Evangelical Christian agenda that is often more concerned about power and political control than about faith, often spending big money influencing & lobbying politicians in the USA, UK & abroad, in an attempt to control policy makers.  Hundreds of thousands are spent lobbying and fighting equality, often using fear-mongering to gather support (for eg. watch this Human Rights Commission video about the US group National Organization for Marriage, or this film exploring the relationship between American Conservative Christians & Africa)

In their own words, the UK's Christian Institute has paid the legal fees for Mrs Wilkinson & the Bulls ("Mrs Wilkinson’s legal defence was paid for by The Christian Institute, a national charity that protects the civil liberty of Christians," & "The Bulls’ appeal to the UK Supreme Court, to be heard next month, is supported by The Christian Institute’s legal defence fund."). Wouldn't it be a much better use of time and money, if the same resources were spent fighting to protect the lives & freedom of LGBT people in places like Russia, Uganda or Nigeria, or do they not deserve life because they identify as LGBT?

In my opinion, I don't think this is solely about religious freedom; It's couched in arguments about religious freedom, but this is more likely about powerful lobbying organisations fighting to gain and/or retain money, influence and power.  It's sad to see how much hatred the conservative evangelical camp has towards the LGBT community.  They may say they 'love the sinner, hate the sin', but that's misguided & impossible ... gay people are not straight people with an addiction to same-sex intimacy, they are people only capable of same-sex intimacy ... it's how they were born. To deny them any intimacy with someone of the same sex is to deny them the hope of companionship, a relationship and a family. To expect them to conform to that kind of miserable, lonely existence, in order to be a part of your worshipping community is not acceptance, it's a sentence.  It's also a double standard ... they expect chastity from the LGBT community, but will put up with sexual & marriage indiscretion and infidelity from straight members of their communities.

I wish the Bulls & the Wilkinsons all the best, but their future should not involve Bed & Breakfasts, unless they offer hospitality to all.  They should consider seeking some other form of income, or open retreat houses (of which there are already plenty).  As business owners, they should absolutely be held professionally and legally accountable for their discrimination.

However, they should not victimised or become victims of hate crimes, but they should also not be the pawns of large lobbying groups, seeking to use their lives to gather publicity and gain control.


  1. Couldn't agree more: good analysis & well said.

    1. Thanks Phil. Occasionally, I manage to string together a few sentences. ;)