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23 December 2011

Religious Liberty Struggles

Religious Liberty Struggles

Religious liberty has been the subject of considerable debate in recent weeks. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, at a launch of the Not Ashamed Christian Concern campaign, claimed that Christians who practise their faith publicly are increasingly facing discrimination. This week, the Christian Institute were in Bristol County Court defending Cornish guesthouse owners Peter and Hazelmary Bull, who refused to allow a gay couple to share one of their double rooms.

The Bulls, who claim they have been the victims of a set-up, are being sued for sexual orientation discrimination by Martyn Hall and his civil partner Steven Preddy under the Equality Act, over their policy of restricting double bed accommodation to married couples only. The Equality and Human Rights Commission says it is funding the case on the basis that it is the first of its kind in Britain and involves an important area of law that is untested to date.

The claim is brought under the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (2007), the same regulations that have caused faith-based adoption agencies to close down or abandon their religious ethos. It represents a parallel case in the area of goods and services to the landmark employment case involving Islington registrar Lillian Ladele. The guesthouse in Marazion is not just a business, it is also Mr and Mrs Bull's own home. If the claim against the guesthouse is successful, Mr and Mrs Bull may be ordered to pay up to £5,000 to Mr Preddy and Mr Hall for injury to their feelings.

Mr and Mrs Bull are contesting the claim, saying their double bed policy applies to all unmarried couples regardless of sexual orientation. The policy is prominently advertised on their website and all booking forms. It is applied consistently to unmarried couples, whether heterosexual or homosexual. The Bulls maintain their approach results from their beliefs about marriage, not out of hostility towards a particular sexual orientation.

The current case again involves conflict between two protected human rights - religious liberty and sexual orientation - and it is of crucial significance. Neither the Government nor the Equality and Human Rights Commission have, to date, initiated any serious attempt to introduce a fair and appropriate good relations policy which allows freedom and space to both. The principle of exceptions from human rights legislation to make it workable is well established in the law. For example, a secular humanist teaching in a faith school demands freedom of conscience not to participate in religious activities. But so far, most of the legal conflicts have resulted in Christians' freedom of conscience taking second place to sexual orientation rights. The Ladele case is likely to end up in the European Court of Human Rights, and whoever wins and loses in Bristol, this case looks set to be appealed in a similar process. Christians everywhere are urged to pray for the Bulls, that for the sake of religious liberty everywhere their human rights will be respected this time.

The judge has reserved his decision, probably until after Christmas, commenting that the case is the first of its kind and has raised complex legal issues that need careful consideration. The fundamental contest is between liberty of conscience and freedom to receive a publicly advertised service. We hope the judgement will represent a fair and balanced interpretation of human rights legislation on the supposedly level playing field the law extends to both sets of rights. If not, then the law will need to change. As the guesthouse is also their home, the Bulls' right not to be forced to choose between their sincerely held religious beliefs and their livelihood is at stake. In this context it may be of vital importance that the Bulls' guesthouse is one of many in that part of Cornwall, so there are plenty of other options and room for diversity of view to operate in practice.

In support of the Bulls, Bishops Michael Scott-Joynt and Michael Nazir-Ali have this week jointly claimed that "liberty of conscience is being eroded". Writing in the Daily Telegraph they say: "Mr and Mrs Bull's understanding of marriage is the same as that of English law and the Christian Church… Liberty of conscience must not be confined to the mind. It is meaningless unless it includes the freedom to stand by our principles publicly."

A separate case in Birmingham County Court last week upheld the principle of free speech. Anthony Rollins, an autistic Christian street preacher who was handcuffed and arrested for speaking in the centre of Birmingham, has been awarded £4,250 in damages following a court case against West Midlands Police. The court also ruled that Mr Rollins was wrongfully arrested, unlawfully detained and his human rights to free speech and religious liberty were infringed. The court ordered the police to pay Mr Rollins' legal costs.

It is regrettable when matters of religious conscience end up in court. A society that can only resort to the blunt instrument of the law to decide issues of conscience is one whose future is likely to be precarious and increasingly confrontational. We all lose in such a scenario.