Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Bull Case in England: Concluding Remarks

It's possible, I suppose, to make too much of the story of the Cornish hotel owners recently fined for discriminating against a gay couple, about which I blogged several days ago.  But since media discussion of this case continues in the British Isles, and since the gay couple who sued and won this case are still being  pilloried in the British media, I want to offer some concluding thoughts about the Bull case.

As I noted in my previous posting about this story, it strikes me as . . . well, curious, to say the least . . . that the furious media response defending the couple who refused to rent a room with a double bed to a gay couple in a legal union is paying no attention at all to the principle the response is implicitly defending, in defending this couple.  Since Peter and Hazelmary Bull have a stated policy of refusing a room with a double bed to both unmarried heterosexual couples and all gay or lesbian couples, legally married or not, in defending their action in the case of the gay couple denied a double bed, their media supporters are defending the right of hotel or b and b owners in the British Isles to discriminate against unmarried heterosexual couples as well as married or unmarried gay ones.

And so they are defending the following scenario for the countries of the U.K.: any hotel or b and b owner anywhere in the land can announce that he/she has biblically based scruples against renting rooms to unmarried heterosexual couples. And that right ought to be upheld, per the response of media defenders of the Bulls, because Christians have a right to believe and practice what they choose to believe and practice.  Christians have a right to apply biblical principles in their business life and everywhere else.   

And so hotel or b and b owners should now have the right to demand proof of marriage, before they rent a room to a heterosexual couple presenting itself as a married couple.  In fact, the discrimination the Bulls are choosing to practice against gay couples can hardly be defended at all unless it also extends to unmarried heterosexual couples, since the same biblical warrants cited to outlaw gay relationships also forbid all sex outside marriage.

As I noted in my previous posting about this, I suspect that those defending the Bulls solely because they wish to defend the right of businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians are soft-pedaling these parts of the Bull's discriminatory policy because they know very well that a great deal of trouble would ensue if any developed nation gave businesses the right to practice the kind of selective discrimination citing biblical warrants that these media folks are defending in the case of gay people.  Imagine what would happen if this principle of selective discrimination were enacted in practice in the British Isles.  Imagine all the couples from places with traditions of live-and-let-live tolerance--all the unmarried heterosexual couples--arriving in England or Scotland or Wales for a holiday only to discover suddenly that they must produce proof of marriage before renting a room together or a room with a double bed.

Imagine the economic effects of the policy of discrimination that media defenders of the Bulls' policy of discriminating against gays are implicitly defending, as they defend that policy.  Imagine the effects on the tourist industry of the British Isles.  Imagine the effects on the image of English-speaking nations that already have the reputation throughout much of the rest of the world of being hypocritically puritanical, of defending principles applied to others that they don't practice in their own lives.

And imagine the consequences of what those defending the Bulls are also proposing for the common good, for the civic life, of the nations of the British Isles.  It is the nature of discriminatory policies to extend themselves.  Once we permit discrimination in one area of life, we open the door to discrimination in other areas of life. And societies in which discrimination is widespread and supported by law are not attractive places to live--not attractive places for anyone to live.

Once we allow business owners to cite biblical principles to justify illegal discrimination against one minority group, we open the door for those business owners to cite the bible all over again to justify discrimination against another minority group.  Once we have defended the "right" of "Christian" hotel owners to discriminate against those who are gay and lesbian because they sincerely believe the bible commands such discrimination, what is to prevent another group of "Christian" hotel owners from announcing that they will not rent a room to a Muslim?  Because the bible commands such discrimination.  Or to an interracial couple?

Because the bible commands such discrimination.  Those defending the "right" of "Christians" to discriminate against gays and lesbians because the bible encourages such discrimination have a  strangely shallow historical memory.  They seem already to have forgotten what was going on in the American South little more than a half century ago; they have forgotten the pertinence of this history to what they are now defending, at the start of the 21st century, in the British Isles.

Because I grew up in the American South as segregation--legal segregation--gave way to integration, I remember very well what it was like to live, little more than half a century ago, in a part of the world in which everyone around me in the ruling sector of my culture devoutly believed that the bible commanded the separation of the races.  And the dominance of one race by another--the subjugation of the race to which we rulers did not belong to us, the rulers. 

We, too, quoted the bible as we discriminated.  We told and retold the story of Noah and his son Ham, a story that had been told for centuries in Western Christianity to support the subjugation of people of color to light-skinned ones.  And the society that resulted from such legally sanctioned discrimination based on theological claims and biblical warrants was a mess.  It was not a society that any sane group of people would choose to use as a model for civic life at this point in history.  But it is precisely the society--that society of the segregated Old South--that defenders of the Bulls are proposing for the British Isles when they defend the "right" of "Christians" to practice discrimination in contravention of the law, because the bible tells them to practice such discrimination.

Better, it seems to me, to recognize that a vibrant pluralistic civil society depends on enshrining in civil law certain unvarying principles of non-discrimination that apply to all, in all cases, and that do not waver simply because any given religious group within that civil society has qualms about this or that group of people.  Better to draw a line between what religious groups happen to believe and how a society will proceed, when it comes to serving the common good and building a humane world based on principles of justice and inclusion.

This is certainly a lesson we Southern Christians had to learn in the latter half of the 20th century, and today, it's unthinkable that anyone in the media would raise a hue and cry if any of us would claim that our "right" to practice racial discrimination violates our "Christian" bible-based principles.  The culture at large and the media that reflect the views of the culture at large have long since recognized that our selective, warped reading of the bible to support racial discrimination doesn't deserve serious attention as a bona fide Christian claim.  Any church that wants to hold onto the reading of the story of Noah's son Ham to justify the subjugation of his descendants to the descendants of Shem's brother (read: the subjugation of people of color to light-skinned ones) certainly has the right to do so.

But these churches, we've long since concluded, don't have the right to impose that bizarre reading of the scriptures on the culture at large.  Or to encourage discrimination that has been outlawed, while quoting the bible and citing our right to religious freedom.  The selective, twisted way in which many churches read the scriptures for centuries to justify racial oppression no longer holds water in the culture at large or in the media.

And so one wonders why discrimination against gay and lesbian human beings, based also on a selective, twisted, and harmful reading of the scriptures, is still being defended in the secular media--when the media wouldn't defend a similar use of the bible to justify racial discrimination or any other biblically based form of discrimination, for that matter?  Or when it downplays a similar use of the bible to justify discrimination against heterosexuals who are contravening biblical principles about marriage? 

Much depends, doesn't it, on who still has the right to lord it over whom.  On who has the right to tag whom as disordered or diseased or a threat to life and the human race.  On who has the right to claim that the bible is unambiguously on his side, even when he ignores vast portions of the scriptures he cites selectively to continue demonizing the group he insists on tagging as disordered, diseased, and a threat to life and the human race.

That's ultimately the principle that media defenders of Peter and Hazelmary Bull are defending: the right of one group in society (to which they themselves happen to belong) to continue tagging another group as subhuman.  And the right to use religion as a basis for such dehumanizing treatment of another group of human beings, even when many of these media gurus themselves have only a tenuous connection to religion or religious values, and would not support the domination of the public square by religious warrants in other areas of life--especially vis-a-vis their own sexual behavior.  Or economic outlook and practices.

Not a very admirable principle being defended here, is it?  And certainly not one that leads to healthy societies, when it is permitted to play out in the business practices and cultural life of a nation.  But one that, by all indicators, will remain with us for some time to come, until the culture at large begins to marginalize such behavior and the illicit use of religious warrants on which it depends.

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