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
Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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