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.

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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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