Equality between the sheets

The "right" to discriminate cuts both ways.

Should a Christian hotel-owner be allowed to refuse a gay couple a double-bed, or is such discrimination no more than bigotry which the law should not allow them to indulge?

The case of Christian hotel-owners Peter and Hazelmary Bull is currently before the Court of Appeal. Earlier this year, the Evangelical couple were ordered to pay compensation to a couple in a civil partnership who had been turned away from their establishment in Cornwall. The conflict is easier to describe than to solve: the law regards civil partnership as equal, in almost all respects, to marriage. But the God worshipped by the Bulls does not.

There would be less debate if the Bulls had refused to employ a receptionist because they discovered that she was in a lesbian relationship, or indeed if they had refused to allow a lone gay man to occupy a single room. But the intimate circumstances of bed-sharing do seem to complicate the situation. The Bulls claim that only married couples are allowed to sleep together in their beds, and that any other arrangement would be an indulgence of sin. Put bluntly, the matter at issue isn't sexual orientation, it's sex - or rather the possibility of sex.

There's some dispute about whether, in fact, the Bulls have been quite so strict about unmarried heterosexual couples as they claim. A prominent member of the National Secular Society who stayed at the hotel in 2006 with his female partner reports having had no trouble getting a room (though they were a bit disconcerted to discover "religious tracts all over the place" once they had booked in). Be that as it may, if the bed being offered is a double one, then the owners are in effect facilitating sexual conduct that may go against their deeply-held convictions.

It's no coincidence that religion has emerged in recent years as a major battleground of social and legal rights. There have been rows about Islamic dress, crosses in the workplace, nurses praying for their patients, sex education in schools. In human rights law spiritual belief occupies an ambiguous status. It is both a category of protection -- for religion is increasingly seen as a source of personal identity -- and a cause of discrimination. It's not always easy to distinguish between the two. Behaviour which a believer may regard as intrinsic to his or her religious identity may involve inconveniencing or discriminating against other people, who also have rights. The law, and society, must choose whose right to upheld. Someone must lose.

Can philosophy help? The British Humanist Association has recently put out a pamphlet, Right to Object?, which takes a broader view of some of the issues at stake.

In his introduction, Alan Howarth locates the point at issue in the conflict between two principles: that of obeying the law (necessary for a functioning society) and that of following one's own conscience, without which one can scarcely be said to enjoy moral autonomy. Balancing the two involves defining a sphere of exemption from what would otherwise be legal requirements. Such a definition, Howarth writes, "must appear especially desirable in a society which prides itself upon its liberalism, tolerance, and its respect for the moral autonomy of individuals." This is true enough, but it does suggest that a certain self-congratulation may be at work here, and also perhaps an element of wishful thinking.

As the philosopher Peter Cave points out in his essay, the weighing and balancing that judges engage in when deciding difficult cases "are smokescreens for 'muddling through'". His own view, which I tend to endorse, is that the law should err on the side of liberality, allowing "a thousand preferences to bloom" provided that there are not significant social ill-effects. He would allow the right of a small hotel run by Evangelical Christians to refuse to offer a gay couple a double-bed, but also allow companies to enforce dress-codes that make no allowances for religious dress. What this seems to mean in practice, though - and what may be going on at a deeper level - is the privileging of the interest of both employers and service-providers at the expense of both employees and customers. Is this really sustainable?

In the case of Mr and Mrs Bull, their preference for a hotel run on the basis of traditional Christian morality need not unduly inconvenience gay couples provided that most hotels don't impose such restrictions. Indeed, hotels like the Bulls' might be said to increase consumer choice for Christian holidaymakers who share their unease at being in the proximity of gay sex.

And consider the converse case. There are hotels and guesthouses that specialise in serving members of the gay community, and may wish to turn away heterosexual couples. In February 2011, shortly after the Bull case came to court, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (in a typical piece of empire-building) announced that they would look into whether gay-only hotels discriminated against straight guests, even though it hadn't actually received any complaints.

In response, the owner of a gay hotel in Bournemouth complained that that Equality Act was a "double-edged sword" that was "killing gay culture." And indeed, one hotel in Blackpool that used to boast openly that it was "exclusively gay" now states on its website that it "welcomes all guests, new and old", presumably in response to the EHRC move. This is surely a perverse outcome of laws designed to protect minorities from discrimination. In the name of diversity, a bland conformism prevails, reducing choice and opportunity for customers as well as owners.

I strongly support the right of bar and hotel-owners to run single-sex gay-only establishments, so long as they are clearly signposted as such. They provide an important service to their community which would be compromised if they were forced to open their doors to heterosexuals. The quid pro quo must be the right of a few Christian hotel-owners to run their enterprises upon openly religious lines.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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How the Brexit referendum has infantilised British politics

Politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. 

Ancient Greece is the cradle of modern Europe.  From its primordial soup emerged so much of our culture, our language and our politics. Of the three, it seems to be the politics that has made the least progress over the centuries. In fact, if you dropped an Athenian into the middle of politics in the UK today, they would find themselves right at home. This is not because of the direct democracy, the demagogues or the xenophobia, though all are worryingly familiar, but because of the style of the debate itself.

To understand politics in ancient Greece you have to grasp that they had no concept of ‘the truth’. This is not to say that they were liars, simply that the framework by which we judge credibility was not one they would have recognised. The myths and legends that dominated their discourse were neither thought of as being ‘true’ or ‘made-up’, they simply were, and the fact of their being known allowed them to be used as reference points for debate and argument.

Modern politics seems to be sliding back towards this infant state, and nothing embodies this more than the childish slanging match that passes for an EU referendum debate. In the past six years the UK has had three great exercises of direct democracy and it is safe to say none of the campaigns have added a great deal to sum of human enlightenment. Who remembers the claims that babies would die as a result of the special voting machines needed to conduct AV elections? But the EU referendum has taken this to new extremes. The In campaign are executing what is a fairly predictable strategy, the kind of thing that is normal fare in politics these days. Dossiers of doomsday scenarios. Experts wheeled out. Statistics embellished to dazzle the public. One can question the exact accuracy, but at least you feel they operate within certain parameters of veracity.

What is happening on the Out side, in contrast, is the collective nervous breakdown of a large section of the political establishment. Just this week we have had Penny Mordaunt, a government minister, flat-out denying the UK’s right to veto new accessions to the EU. We have seen the fiercely independent Institute for Fiscal Studies denounced as a propaganda arm for Brussels. Most bizarrely, Boris Johnson even tried to claim that the EU had banned bananas from being sold in bunches larger than three, something that nobody who has actually visited a shop in the UK could possibly believe. These kind of claims stretch our political discourse way beyond the crudely drawn boundaries of factual accuracy that normally constrain what politicians can do and say. Surely the people peddling these myths can never be taken seriously again?

But they will. You just watch as Johnson, Mordaunt and the rest slide effortlessly back into public life. Instead of being ridiculed for their unhinged statements, they will be rewarded with plush offices and ministerial cars. Journalists will continue to hang on every word they say. Their views will be published in newspapers, their faces will flit ceaselessly across our TV screens. Johnson is even touted as a plausible future leader of our country, possibly before the year is out. A man who over his meandering career seems to have held every possible opinion on any topic you care to name. Or rather, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the character we call Boris has no opinions at all, simply interests. The public, who have scant regard for a political class they believe to be untrustworthy, seem to have taken a shine to a man who is perhaps the most fundamentally dishonest of Westminster’s denizens.

What does all this say about the state of our politics? If it is true that we are seeing the advent of ‘post-truth’ politics, as some have argued, then it has grown out of the corrosive relationship between politicians and the public. It is both a great irony and a great tragedy that the very fact that people distrust all politicians is what has permitted the most opportunistic to peddle more and more outlandish claims. Political discourse has ceased to be a rational debate with agreed parameters and, like the ancient Greeks, more resembles a series of competing myths. Claims are assessed not by their accuracy but by their place in the grand narrative which is politics.

But the truth matters. For the ancients it was the historian Thucydides who shifted the dial decisively in favour of fact over fiction. In writing his Histories he decided that he wanted to know what actually happened, not just what made a good story. In a similar vein British politics needs to take a step back towards the real world. Broadcasters launching fact-checkers are a good start, but we need to up the level of scrutiny on political claims and those who make them. At times it feels like the press operate as a kind of counterweight to Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, going easy on much-loved characters for fear of upsetting the viewers.

But politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. If politics is the art of the possible, then political discourse is the art of saying what you can get away with. Until there are consequences for the worst offenders, the age of post-truth politics will continue suck the life from our public debate.