Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Bull Case in England: Hotel Owners Fined for Discriminating Against Gay Couple (and American Religious Right Is Strangely Silent)

Interestingly enough, the story of a recent court ruling in England fining a couple who own a hotel for refusing a room with a double bed to a gay couple in a civil union is not getting much play in right-wing anti-gay American political circles.  And I suspect I know the reason why--and, if you'll bear with me a moment, will talk about that in a minute.

But first, the case itself: here are Jonathan Petre and Simon Trump summarizing what happened in a recent Daily Mail article, and Andrew Brown commenting on it in the Guardian.  Commentary, then, from two very different sectors of British society and the British media . . . .  And for outstanding commentary with a theological slant by Terry Weldon at Queering the Church, see this statement.

The bare bones of the story: a couple, Peter and Hazelmary Bull, operate a hotel in Cornwall in which they themselves also live.  When a gay couple civilly married under English law booked a room with a double bed for a holiday, the Bulls informed them on their arrival that the couple could not share a double bed in their hotel, due to the Bulls' Christian values.  The hotel in question, the Chymorvah, has a website that states on its room-booking page,

Here at Chymorvah we have few rules, but please note that as Christians we have a deep regard for marriage (being the union of one man to one woman for life to the exclusion of all others).

Therefore, although we extend to all a warm welcome to our home, our double bedded accommodation is not available to unmarried couples.

The gay couple who booked a room at the Chymorvah, Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy, have stated that they were unaware of this policy, and prior to calling the hotel for a reservation, they checked only to see if their dog would be welcome, never imagining that in 2008 there would be hotels in Britain discriminating against paying guests on grounds of sexual orientation.  Or against gay couples in legally recognized, legally valid civil unions.

Upon hearing the case, Judge Andrew Rutherford of Bristol County Court concluded that the case involved a clear-cut violation of the Equality Act Regulations of 2007, which forbid discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation--though the Bulls are maintaining that they apply their policy of no double beds for unmarried couples to unmarried heterosexual and to gay couples alike, whether the latter are in civil unions (as with Hall and Preddy) or not.

And now, there's a huge uproar in the British media about this case, with much commentary maintaining that Hall and Preddy set the Bulls up and used the situation to create a test case over which to sue, that the Bulls have a right to enforce their moral rules in their own home, that the Bulls are a grandfatherly and grandmotherly couple who are being persecuted by secularists out to marginalize Christianity in the British Isles and curb religious liberty, etc.  The Bulls themselves aren't, you understand, activists at all, with their discriminatory policy challenging the law of the land and their easily proven connection to a movement in their country that is all about asserting the right of Christians of a certain stripe to discriminate, in contravention of the law, when they believe they have biblical warrant for doing so . . . .

And what interests me in this commentary is how much of it conspicuously avoids any mention of the fact that, as Andrew Brown notes (in the Guardian op-ed piece to which I link above), the Bulls have apparently had previous difficulties with heterosexual unmarried couples whom they refused a double-bed room, while one unmarried heterosexual couple report that they stayed at the hotel in 2006, without ever having been told that they could not share a double bed as an unmarried heterosexual couple.  According to their report, they were not even asked, in fact, if they were married.

In the trial, Hall and Preddy had the backing of the U.K.'s Equality and Human Rights Commission, and the Bulls' case was funded by a group called the Christian Institute, a group whose website (to which I have just linked) states that it exists to uphold "the truths of the Bible" and for “the furtherance and promotion of the Christian religion in the United Kingdom” and “the advancement of education.”  Under its "What We Believe" section, the Christian Institute website contains articles noting that it believes that government must rule according to "God's moral law" as this is dictated in the bible; that the only defensible definition of marriage is one man, one woman, for life; that the right of churches to refuse to employ "unbelieving staff" must be stoutly defended; that "God’s present judgment is a reality for nations which defy Jesus Christ"; that the U.K. is constitutionally defined as "a Christian country"; that the rights of "minority" religions and minority "philosophies" to think as they choose in the "Christian country" of the U.K. are strictly limited by God's moral law as dictated in the bible; and, well, have a look for yourself, if you're interested.

As the British group Ekklesia notes, like similar right-wing Christian political activist groups in the U.S., the Christian Institute has long sought to maintain that it represents "the" Christian viewpoint in the British Isles in a unilateral way, and that it has the backing of the vast majority of British Christians.  Ekklesia notes that the Christian Institute wants to return to a Christendom model that united church and state in the British Isles, and gave churches the power to determine civil law.  

In the view of Ekklesia, here is the agenda of the Christian Party whose political interests the Institute reflects, as well as the agenda of the Christian Institute itself:

In addition to a right-wing economic agenda and opposition to immigration, the Christian Party supports legal and political privileges for certain forms of Christianity. Despite describing themselves as “pro-life”, they want to retain the UK's government's nuclear weapons. They also call for a reduction in the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. They justify their draconian policies on the grounds that “Britain is a Christian country”.

A number of news sources indicate that, in addition to their intimate association with the Christian Institute, the Bulls are also in "regular contact" with owners of other b and b's and hotels in the British Isles who do overtly discriminate against gay and lesbian customers, and who intend to continue this discrimination despite the legal ruling in the case of the Bulls.    And who do not have a policy similar to the Bulls' policy, which claims to discriminate equally against unmarried heterosexual couples and all gay ones.

One of these is Tom Forrest, who runs the Cromasaig b and b in Kinlochewe, Scotland, who says he doesn't give a flip about whether his views on these issues are rooted in Christian morality or not: he intends to continue discriminating against gay and lesbian couples while maintaining an open-door policy for unmarried heterosexual couples, who represent a "natural liaison," while gay couples are perverted "creatures."

What to make of this interesting saga with all its twists and turns, and, above all, of the relative silence of the American religious right about a story that would usually engage the attention and raise the ire of American Christianists intent on claiming that secularism is suppressing religious freedom and eroding Christian moral values?  Here's what I suspect is going on with the relative silence of the American religious right about the story of Peter and Hazelmary Bull:

Their stated (if perhaps not routinely enforced) policy of discrimination against both unmarried heterosexual couples and unmarried as well as married gay couples would create serious difficulties for the American religious right, if the religious right anointed the Bulls as their standard-bearers du jour of religious liberty and Christian values.  It would create serious problems for the American religious right for the following reason: precisely because the Bulls propose discrimination against both unmarried heterosexual couples and all gay couples, their policy of ostensible discrimination against unmarried heterosexual couples has the unintended (and, from the standpoint of the American political and religious right, undesirable) effect of exposing the sheer, raw bias of most crusaders of the political and religious right, when it comes to these issues of upholding Christian moral values in civil law.

That bias is, when all is said and done, solely against gays and lesbians.  It is not directed towards heterosexual couples "living in sin."  Think for a moment about what it would mean for any religious or political group to take up the Bulls' cause: it would mean that this group would have to argue that all hotel owners everywhere need to demand proof that any heterosexual couple requesting a room with a double bed are legally married.  Defending the principle that the Bulls wish civil law to uphold would require that we return to a point in our history at which no unmarried heterosexual couple would dream of checking into a hotel without seeking to pass themselves off as a married couple.  And in which, on some occasions, hotels did refuse to rent lodging to heterosexual couples whom the hotel owner suspected of not being married.

Few political or religious groups today really want to go there, despite all the blustering about upholding Christian moral values re: marriage and sexuality and enforcing these in secular law.  Few political or religious groups in the U.S. seriously want to propose a return to such an arrangement.  And so the interesting silence of most of the groups in the U.S. that would immediately jump on the bandwagon when cases like the case of Peter and Hazelmary Bull come along--if the only principle involved is the "right" of "Christians" to discriminate solely against those who are gay and lesbian.

When the discrimination in question cuts both ways--when it involves both unmarried heterosexual couples and gay or lesbian couples--what we begin to see, and what the American religious and political right do not wish for us to see, is that all the talk about upholding Christian values about sexual morality, and about enforcing these values in the public square, is really about nothing more than blatant homophobia.  It has never envisaged a return to a cultural and legal arrangement in which the teaching of Christian churches about all sexual arrangements and activity outside heterosexual marriage be extended to civil laws.  And to how hotels operate.

And the furor in the British media over the purported violation of the "rights" of two hotel owners who, after all, these media mavens are saying, have the right to invite whomever they wish into their "own home" (where the guests pay for the privilege of staying in the Bulls' "home"!): what is this about, really, except the media's continued willingness to play the game of gay-apocalypse?  The game which pretends that when gay and lesbian persons expect to enjoy rights long afforded to their heterosexual counterparts--including the right not to face bald discrimination as they rent a hotel room--society will fall apart?

Do most of the British media gurus sympathizing with the kindly elderly Christian couple who are, they say, being beaten up by evil secularists and degenerate gays really want to see the return to a culture and legal system in the British Isles in which unmarried heterosexual couples would be expected to prove that they are married before they can check into a hotel?

I seriously doubt it.  That would throw many a stick into many a spoke of the wheels of the holiday plans of the very reporters writing these outraged articles about how the gays have undermined one more traditional Christian value on which British society rests.

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