The "right" to discriminate? It doesn't exist

You have the right to be homophobic -- but not to put these beliefs into harmful action.

You have the right to be homophobic -- but not to put these beliefs into harmful action.

An Englishman's home is his castle, or so the phrase informs us. That small scrap of land that is ours to do with as we please. However, as Christian guesthouse owners Peter and Hazelmary Bull have found, once said castle is opened up to the public, the rules begin to change. Specifically, if you say you'll rent your rooms to strangers, it's illegal to turn away the ones that are gay.

Nelson Jones wrote this week that "the intimate circumstances of bed-sharing...complicate the situation". I would have to disagree. Banning gay guests from your premises becomes no more legal if the rule "only" applies to those who might end up having sex. Or in this particular case, those who wish to do so in a double room and without one of the couple making a walk of shame to spend the night back in their single bed.

Though some of the issues raised by this trial may be complex, the concept of discrimination is not. Just as it's against the law to run a business and only serve people with white skin, so it's against the law to run a business and only serve people who like to sleep with the opposite sex. That the banned customer could go elsewhere does not, as Nelson suggests, change this. There could be a hundred other guesthouses available to a gay couple but it would have no relevance to whether it was right or legal for one to turn them away.

Everyone (conducting themselves within the law) has the right to be served everywhere, and to say a policy like the Bull's "need not unduly inconvenience gay couples" is to severely reduce what's wrong with discrimination.

When civil partners Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy were denied a double room, the harm didn't simply come from the effort of re-arranging their plans, or even the (at best) embarrassment that such a need would cause. It came from being excluded because of a biologically determined difference, from being banned from doing something because of who they are. The law says this is wrong. That "the God worshipped by the Bulls does not" is, though unfortunate, irrelevant. Discrimination is discrimination, whether it stems from the playground or a Holy Book.

It would be easy to see such a verdict as an attack on freedom, an attempt by the state to take an unpopular belief and make it illegal. This would, though, be inaccurate. This is not a case that judged the right to be homophobic (or "old fashioned" if that is what we wish to call it). It is a case that judged the right to be homophobic and use that belief to hurt someone else.

How hurt is defined is fundamental -- whether we live by the notion that prejudice only hurts its victim if it involves blood and a physical blow. Nelson is right that philosophy can teach that "multiple preferences" are best, provided they don't cause ill-effects, but it can also tell us the point at which these ill-effects mean our actions must stop. Liberal theory -- the ideas we base our laws on -- sets clear restrictions on personal liberty: "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins." The Bulls have the right to think homosexuality is wrong. If they so wish, they have the right to be repulsed by the thought of two men having sex and even to declare out loud the perils in this sin. They do not have the right to put these beliefs into harmful action, to use them in a way that leads to discrimination.

No one laid a finger on Martyn or Steven. By all accounts, Mr and Mrs Bull were very polite in telling them they were not allowed to share a room with the person who is their partner by law. This does nothing to change the fact this was discrimination. One can't help but wonder whether if their reason had been something other than sexuality, this would even be under contention. There would be unanimous disgust at a guesthouse that held a policy of "No Blacks with Whites Allowed" -- and that it involved "the intimate circumstances of bed-sharing" would evoke little sympathy if inter-race couples were told to take separate rooms.

Such beliefs, in these times, cannot be put into practice. If you open your castle to the public, it's the price you have to pay.

Frances Ryan is a freelance writer and political researcher at the University of Nottingham. She blogs at Different Principles and tweets @frances_ryan


Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.