Note (02/06/2010) : This post has been edited subsequent to its original posting to better explain my thinking. I should also note that I have no legal qualifications, and my understanding of the laws quoted is my best guess.
I’m fairly sure this post will offend some people who read it, and I’m fairly certain that many will disagree with what I write, and yet I’m going to write it anyway. Not because I actively want to cause offense or arguments, but because this is my little area of the web where I let my thoughts and views run free. If you do find this article offensive, or you simply disagree with it, that’s OK, I don’t mind. In fact I’d go so far as to say that if you start to get offended you probably should stop reading, and go somewhere else. There are plenty of other web pages available, and no one is forcing you to read this one. Well I’m not, and if someone else is, that’s between you and them.
Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998 makes it clear that I have the right, as does anyone else, to freedom of expression and that I can impart information and ideas without interference by public authority. Of course, there are limitations, specifically (and I quote),
The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.
So, assuming I’m not breaking the law in some way, I’m pretty much fine to say what I want regardless of who might be offended. It’s important to note that Human Rights act isn’t about ‘preventing people from offending others’, it’s about protecting peoples right to be different from each other..
Article 9 of the same act says the following, and it’s important to note the second section,
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
2. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
You might wonder why I bring all this up, especially because as yet I don’t think I’ve said anything either particularly offensive or disagreeable. Well, I bring it up because I read today that the gay couple that Ms Wilkinson turned away from her B&B are to sue her under the Equality Act 2006. This got me thinking about how socierty handles the conflict of two fundamentally opposed sets of beliefs in an adult and sensible way.
The part that that some people might find offensive is that I believe that Susanne Wilkinson was absolutely ‘right’ to turn a gay couple away from her B&B, and that she was stuck between a rock and a hard place, with no right answer, thanks to a possibly well intentioned, and ultimately poorly defined piece of law making.
To clarify, I don’t think she should have turned them away because they were gay, but because her beliefs did not allow her to support them staying in what effectively was her home. It’s an important distinction, and one that is often misunderstood. To put it another way, if someone runs a ‘green’ establishement, actively promoting sensible, sustainable environmental policies, and minimising carbon footprints, and I turn up in a fuel guzzling Ferrari, and park it outside her B&B, they should be able to turn me away on the basis that our two sets of beliefs are fundamentally incompatible. If you ran a B&B out of your own home, would you want the BNP or some other extreme left or right party to hold their conference there, and advertise it to the country? Or would you want the right to choose who stays in your own home? The problem is that the law doesn’t seem to give you that right.
The Equality Act 2006 (which was passed in 2007) makes it illegal to discriminate against people based on the grounds of sexual orientation, with certain exceptions. The complication is that there are two sections which seem relevant, and both have different things to say. Section 46 covers ‘Goods, Facilities and services’ and also explicitly includes “accommodation in a hotel, boarding house or similar establishment”. That section makes clear that if you offer those services, you cannot discriminate.
Section 47 does the same for “Premises”, and the ‘disposition of premises’ which seems to be aimed at people renting out property or rooms on a longer term basis, and goes hand in hand with Section 48, which details specific circumstances where Section 47 does not apply. The relevant (in my opinion) part of Section 48 is as follows,
(1) Section 47 shall not apply to anything done in relation to the disposal or management of part of premises by a person (“the landlord”) if—
(a) the landlord or a near relative resides, and intends to continue to reside, in another part of the premises,
(b) the premises include parts (other than storage areas and means of access) shared by residents of the premises, and
(c) the premises are not normally sufficient to accommodate—
(i) in the case of premises to be occupied by households, more than two households in addition to that of the landlord or his near relative, or
(ii) in the case of premises to be occupied by individuals, more than six individuals in addition to the landlord or his near relative.
It seems to me, as a layman, that the intent of Section 48 is to protect people from exactly the type of situation I described initially, where two fundamentally different sets of beliefs might collide. The way I read it is that the law was intended to ensure that someone does not need to share their home with someone else who has fundamentally incompatible beliefs, whatever they may be. That makes no value judgement on the respective beliefs, and in fact is a nod to the fact that Article 9 of the Human Rights act allows for people to have fundamentally incompatible beliefs.
Therefore the question appears to be whether the Equality Act would have Ms Wilkinson covered under Section 46, as a ‘hotel or similar establishment’, or under Section 47 as a ‘landlord’ disposing of premises. My guess is that it would be under section 46, which does not take into account the fact that Ms Wilkinson’s business is also her home, as it would if she let rooms on a long term basis. That strikes me as being inconsistent, and essentially means that where your business is also your home, you might be legally obliged to compromise your beliefs, and your right to manifest those beliefs in your own home, in order to ensure that someone elses beliefs and rights are ‘protected’. That doesn’t seem right to me.
The Human Rights Act does provide some guidance for the courts when this kind of question arises, in Section 13 which says,
13 Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
(1) If a court’s determination of any question arising under this Act might affect the exercise by a religious organisation (itself or its members collectively) of the Convention right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, it must have particular regard to the importance of that right.
(2) In this section “court” includes a tribunal.
This might allow the court to place appropriate importance on Ms Wilkinsons Human Rights, and to reach a sensible conclusion. Looking at the manifestation of Ms Wilkinsons ‘religion or beliefs’, I do not think that they threaten ‘rights and freedoms of others’. It’s not as if Ms Wilkinson was abusive or offensive in anyway, by the couples own admission, the only problem was that she did not want to compromise her beliefs by having two people she fundamentally disagreed with staying in her home.
This whole story just made me think that’s it’s so disappointing that in the 21st Century two people want to force someone else to act in a way completely at odds with their beliefs, simply to prove a point. I’m not entirely sure what the point is meant to be, the only one I can think of is that ‘gay rights’ trump ‘christian rights’ in some way. The decision to sue suggests to me that Mr Black and Mr Morgan have no respect for the fact she holds different beliefs to theirs, while at the same time insisting that other people respect the beliefs they hold. It surprises me that more people don’t see the hypocrisy of it.
I really think that a quote from Mr Wilkinson, from the BBC story I linked to above, sums it up nicely,
We are rather surprised that Liberty would be so one-sided in a matter of liberty because there are two liberties to uphold in this case. There is a religious liberty to uphold and there is the right for homosexuals to practise what they want to do.
Perhaps Liberty should also consider suing Guyz Hotel under the same piece of legislation they are using to sue the Wilkinsons.
Personally I think people need to be a little more tolerant both ways, and that people should not be forced to do something in their own home which is fundamentally opposed to their beliefs. I fully support Mark and Steve’s right to run an exclusively gay hotel (Guyz referenced above), and I fully support the Wilkinsons right to run a hotel in line with their beliefs. Respect goes both ways, and it’s important to remember that.