Should a gay hotel owner be allowed to ban Christians?

Chris Grayling seems to have survived his supposed gaffe over the anti-gay B&B owners question. David Cameron might have chosen to make an example of him, Howard Flyte-style, in order to demonstrate the Conservatives' new metropolitan progressive chic. Peter Tatchell warned darkly at the weekend of the pink votes that stood to be lost. No doubt there are compensatory bigot votes to gain. At this stage in the electoral process you can't afford to be too idealistic. If Grayling had gone, the story might have turned into one of Cameronite bullying of traditional Tories. It would certainly have lasted a few vital days more, souring the start of the campaign. Thank goodness, they will be thinking, it came out during the Easter weekend. Grayling's gaffe, if such it was, was scarcely on the same level as the Pope's failure to mention the elephant doing headstands on his altar.

But what of the issue? Grayling's initial comments struck many observers as relatively harmless. He made no remark that could be construed as in any way homophobic (though that didn't stop the swiftly-flying accusations). He was merely asked his views on the situation faced by people such as Susanne Wilkinson, reported to the police after refusing a booking from a gay couple at her B&B in Berkshire. What he said was "I think we need to allow people to have their own consciences." Truly reactionary stuff: he seems to be saying that on matters (such as sexuality) where morality is nowadays decided by the government people ought to have permission to think for themselves. But here's what really upset the guardians of liberal orthodoxy:

I personally always took the view that, if you look at the case of should a Christian hotel owner have the right to exclude a gay couple from a hotel, I took the view that if it's a question of somebody who's doing a B&B in their own home, that individual should have the right to decide who does and who doesn't come into their own home.

Grayling - presumably under pressure - then backtracked, reaffirming that he, along with the rest of his front bench, had supported the Sexual Orientation Regulations under which the Christian guesthouse proprietor would be unable to exercise his or her conscience in that way. The result was confusion. Legally, the case is fairly clear - and has been since 2007, when the regulations were brought into law. A guesthouse owner can't turn away business on the grounds of sexual orientation, even if it is their own home, even if their own strong Christian (or, perhaps, Muslim) convictions revolt against the very thought of homosexuality. Simples. And, as has been pointed out often enough, if Grayling didn't like that consequence of the law he shouldn't have voted for it in the first place.

There's a simple libertarian case against this type of anti-discrimination law, articulated ably by (among others) His Infernal Majesty. The state has, or should have, no business interfering in private commercial relationships. If you want to open a guest-house, and run it along discriminatory lines, then so be it. Perhaps - if your stand is truly unpleasant in its bigotry - then your guest-house will lose business and close down. Personally, I'm (as so often) with Charlotte Gore:

The cause of liberty often means you end up on the same side as bigots and fascists in the full knowledge that no such freedom is extended in return. It's a horrible decision, and I squirm in the typing, but ultimately the B&B owner owns the B&B; it's their property, their business and if they want to run a "values"-based business then, really, I want them to try and with a bit of luck lose all their money and go bankrupt. I'm nice like that.

That's the easy part. More interesting, though, is the question of why this particular issue - the right of a B&B owner to discriminate against gay customers - should be contested when what many people assume to be the parallel case of someone who wants to discriminate against black customers - or, perhaps, against Christian customers - is not. There are a number of things going on here. One is the government's assimilation of different forms of discrimination - powered by different motives, with different historical antecedents - to a simple essentialist model. This is summed up by the phrase used in the Equality Bill (likely to become law during the approaching "wash-up") - "protected characteristic". Race, sex, sexual orientation, religious belief, preganancy, age: all are, for the purposes of the law and in varying degrees, attributes of a person that accord their possessor a special status.

Life, of course, isn't really like that, and arguably to frame the case of the Christian B&B owner as though it were equivalent to that of a racist B&B owner is to miss the point. Put bluntly, the matter at issue isn't sexual orientation, it's sex - or rather the possibility of sex. They don't like the thought of gay sex. And they believe - passionately and with honestly-held conviction - that God doesn't like the thought of gay sex.

I don't think any hotel proprietor would refuse accommodation to a single gay man or woman, or even think to ask. Similarly, it's hard to envisage circumstances in which a shopkeeper would want to exclude a gay couple from entering their store. It's not who they are that troubles our notional landlady; it's what they might get up to. And the guesthouse owner is in a quite different position from the shopkeeper, because the service she is offering includes the possibility of something she may find morally unacceptable. More, by even taking the booking she may believe that she is herself committing a sin.

The sex may not happen, of course - and it might be a different matter if the B&B owner refused to accommodate the gay couple in separate rooms. But if the bed being offered is a double one, then the owner is in effect facilitating sexual conduct that goes against her most deeply-held convictions. By not allowing her the discretion to turn away homosexual guests, the law is thus forcing her into a situation she may well find deeply distressing.

It's not really enough to say that no-one is forcing her to open the guesthouse, and that by so doing she turns her private dwelling into a public space. She is not, after all, an employee of the state, and in a free society it should be up to her who she does and doesn't want having sex on her property. Perhaps she has an objection to all sexual activity that hasn't been blessed by God - unmarried heterosexual couples and civilly partnered gay ones falling equally short in that regard. Well, she should be allowed to do so.

There's another problem thrown up by this putative case, and not by the supposedly parallel one of the racist guesthouse owner. The reason the anti-gay Christian is news and the racist isn't is that the latter doesn't really exist. This is not Alabama in the 1950s. If someone put up a sign in their window saying "No Blacks here" the condemnation would be deafening. But sexual morality remains controversial. There remain a sizeable minority of people who, largely for religious reasons, want to be able to say that homosexual acts - if not people - are wrong. For the law to prevent them from doing so is oppressive.

The intolerance of a newly ascendant morality can be a very ugly thing. In 415AD, in Alexandria, the celebrated mathematician Hypatia was lynched by a Christian mob for being a pagan, an intellectual and an independent woman - all which went against the recently-imposed official belief system. She was hacked to pieces inside a church, the crowd egged on by monks. Today, no-one is being murdered (except perhaps in Holland) for dissenting from liberal orthodoxy, but the sense of an elite imposing its view against those who cling to older certainties is real and growing.

The former bishop of Oxford, a man whose views are in every respect diametrically opposed to those of, say, the Pope, wrote the other day: "I was very shocked recently by the story of one eminent citizen, a serious, if liberal, Christian, who publicly defended an act of Christian witness and who told me that they had experienced the most extraordinary scorn and hostility from colleagues." Meanwhile, Dr Rowan Williams spoke in his Easter sermon of the "strange mixture of contempt and fear towards the Christian faith" which many people today feel. When a reasonable opinion - that "we need to allow people to have their own consciences" - can be seized upon as evidence of bigoted homophobia, the country begins to seem a scarily unfree place.

Consider the converse situation. There are hotels and guesthouses that specialise in serving members of the gay community, and may wish to turn away heterosexual couples. One such, Legends in Brighton, advertises itself as "the finest gay hotel in the UK". It "offers an amazing array of quality rooms, many with stunning sea views." This is no private B&B such as would attract Grayling's proposed exemption. It's not clear whether they would turn away heterosexual clients - the only stated exclusion is one of hen or stag parties. However, it is quite clearly stated on the hotel's website that "the management reserve the right to refuse accommodation to anyone without providing a reason."

In Blackpool one finds Guyz, an establishment offering its facilities exclusively to gay men - thus discriminating, not just on grounds of orientation, but on gender too. Their website is quite explicit about the stance:

Guyz is a GENUINE Gay Hotel. That means it is a hotel owned and run BY gay people FOR gay people, but beware there are some straight owned ‘Pink Pound’ friendly Hotels locally that display the pride flag trying to cash in on gay money, and it isn’t until you check in that you discover they may be mixed, or even have STAG & HEN parties staying.!!!

If you are specifically looking for a Gay Hotel be sure to ask if it is exclusively gay when booking to avoid possible disappointment.

It sounds as though their typical customer is as disturbed by the thought of being in the presence of heterosexual rumpy-pumpy as Susanne Wilkinson presumably was by the contemplation of a couple of blokes going bareback on her duvet.

At the time the 2007 regulations were being debated, the hotel's proprietor Mark Hurst voiced his personal fears that he would be forced to accept heterosexual guests. "It’s not all good news at all," he was quoted as saying. The guy from Guyz said that he would be campaigning for an exemption, (he didn't get one) adding that he intended "to stay 'men only' exclusively for as long as we can." He added, "At the end of the day, this is our home and as a landlord we have the right to refuse entry to anyone without giving a reason."

Presumably he hasn't been troubled by hordes of evangelical Christians trying to force their way into his establishment so that they can have godly marital intercourse on his beds.

Is there a difference between the two situations? It might be claimed that hotels like Legends or Guyz are relatively few in number, and are providing a niche service that would otherwise go unprovided. But then what of people who wish to stay in Christian-run, heterosexual-only hotels where they can sleep untroubled by the thought of sinful sex happening in the next room? Don't they, too, have a right to be served? The discrimination being complained of to the police in the case of Susanne Wilkinson's B&B, like that being advertised openly on the Guyz website, might be said to reduce the choice of customers who are turned away. Yet it might equally well be said to increase the choice of gay or evangelical guests who would like to associate with others like them. If all hotels and guesthouses have to be open to all comers in the name of equality and non-discrimination, an important element of choice may be lost. And the only grounds on which hotels are able to discriminate will be money.


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