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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How the Standing Rock fight will continue

Bureaucratic ability to hold corporate interest account will be more necessary now than ever.

Fireworks lit up the sky in rural North Dakota on Sunday night, as protestors celebrated at what is being widely hailed as a major victory for rights activism.

After months spent encamped in tee-pees and tents on the banks of the Canonball river, supporters of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe finally received the news they’d been waiting for: the US Army Corps has not issued the Dakota Access pipeline with the permit it requires to drill under Lake Oahe.

“We […] commend with the utmost gratitude the courage it took on the part of President Obama, the Army Corps, the Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior to take steps to correct the course of history and to do the right thing" said a statement released by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s chairman, Dave Archambault II.

With the camp’s epic setting, social-media fame, and echoes of wider injustice towards Native Americans, the movement has already earned a place in the history books. You can almost hear the Hollywood scriptwriters tapping away.

But as the smoke settles and the snow thickens around the thinning campsite, what will be Standing Rock’s lasting legacy?

I’ve written before about the solidarity, social justice and environmental awareness that I think make this anti-pipeline movement such an important symbol for the world today.

But perhaps its most influential consequence may also be its least glamorous: an insistence on a fully-functioning and accountable bureaucratic process.

According to a statement from the US Army’s Assistant Secretary of Civil Words, the Dakota Access project must “explore alternate routes”, through the aid of “an Environmental Impact Statement with full public input and analysis”.

This emphasis on consultation and review is not big-statement politics from the Obama administration. In fact it is a far cry from his outright rejection of the Keystone Pipeline project in 2015. Yet it may set an even more enduring example.

The use of presidential power to reject Keystone, was justified on the grounds that America needed to maintain its reputation as a “global leader” on climate change. This certainly sent a clear message to the world that support from Canadian tar-sands oil deposits was environmentally unacceptable.

But it also failed to close the issue. TransCanada, the company behind Keystone, has remained “committed” to the project and has embroiled the government in a lengthy legal challenge. Unsurprisingly, they now hope to “convince” Donald Trump to overturn Obama’s position.

In contrast, the apparently modest nature of the government’s response to Dakota Access Pipeline may yet prove environmental justice’s biggest boon. It may even help Trump-proof the environment.

“Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it’s clear that there’s more work to do”, said the Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Works.

Back in July, the same Army Corps of Engineers (which has jurisdiction over domestic pipelines crossing major waterways) waved through an environmental assessment prepared by the pipeline’s developer and approved the project. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe subsequently complained that the threat to its water supply and cultural heritage had not been duly considered. This month’s about-turn is thus vital recognition of the importance of careful and extensive public consultation. And if ever such recognition was needed it is now.

Not only does Donald Trump have a financial tie to the Energy Transfer Partners but the wider oil and gas industry also invested millions into other Republican candidate nominees. On top of this, Trump has already announced that Myron Ebell, a well known climate sceptic, will be in charge of leading the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Maintaining the level of scrutiny finally granted for Standing Rock may not be easy under the new administration. Jennifer Baker, an attorney who has worked with tribes in South Dakota on pipeline issues for several years, fears that the ground gained may not last long. But while the camp at Standing Rock may be disbanding, the movement is not.

This Friday, the three tribes who have sued the Corps (the Yankont, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock Sioux Tribes) will head to a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, seeking to increase pressure on the government to comply with both domestic and international law as it pertains to human rights and indigenous soveriegnty. 

What the anti-pipeline struggle has shown - and will continue to show - is that a fully accountable and transparent bureaucratic process could yet become the environment's best line of defence. That – and hope.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.