There is hope for Christian-owned bed & breakfasts that restrict double rooms to married couples only, following a Court of Appeal ruling issued today.
Although the B&B at the centre of the case lost its appeal, the court said its marriage policy should not be regarded as “direct discrimination” against same sex couples.
The Master of the Rolls Lord Dyson said in his ruling that he would prefer to treat such a policy as indirect discrimination, which can be lawful if the policy is justified.
But he said he “reluctantly” had to follow a previous ruling in a similar case which held the policy to be direct discrimination, which does not allow for any justification.
Lord Dyson’s comments are a step in the right direction for the civil liberty of people to act upon their sincere beliefs about marriage.
The ruling relates to the case of B&B owner Susanne Wilkinson, who says she was trying to uphold her beliefs about marriage in her family-run B&B, near Cookham in Berkshire.
But she was sued by gay couple, Michael Black and John Morgan, after they were told they couldn’t have a double bed in March 2010.
In October 2012 a county court ruled against Mrs Wilkinson saying her policy directly discriminates against gay couples. The court ordered her to pay £3,600 in damages.
While upholding that ruling, the Court of Appeal says it would prefer to say her policy amounts to indirect discrimination – which can be permitted if it is justified.
In looking at justification, the Court acknowledged that religious rights are of equal importance to sexual orientation rights.
However, in this particular case, the Court said Mrs Wilkinson’s policy would not be justified because she could convert her B&B to single bed accommodation without it having a fatal economic impact on her.
That would open the door for other B&Bs to maintain a ‘married couples only’ policy for double rooms, if they can show the policy is justified. Such cases will depend on their particular facts.
A similar case involving another B&B, owned by Peter and Hazelmary Bull from Cornwall, is due to be heard by the Supreme Court later this year.
Permission has been granted for Mrs Wilkinson to appeal, and her case could be joined with the Bulls so that the Supreme Court can hear both cases together.
Reacting to the ruling, Mrs Wilkinson said: “I am disappointed to have lost at this stage, but I am pleased that there is hope for people like me who believe in marriage.
“In particular, I am pleased that in his ruling Lord Dyson, Master of the Rolls, has stated that in his opinion mine ought not to be a case of direct discrimination.
“I am also encouraged that the three presiding High Court judges have affirmed that the human right of religious belief is intrinsically as important as that of homosexual orientation and that neither right in principle trumps the other.
“I am, however, disappointed that the court felt it had to follow adverse rulings on a similar case relating to direct discrimination, although I take some comfort in the judge’s remark that he did so ‘reluctantly’.
“I am also disappointed with the judges’ weighing up of the specific facts of the case and their bearing on indirect discrimination. In particular their justification that a change on my part whereby I would limit double rooms to single occupancy would not necessarily be economically fatal.
“This economic justification does not place sufficient weight on the principle involved by which I seek to conscientiously operate my business according to biblical values.
“Surely in our diverse 21st century UK society there is ample room for a variety of lifestyles with many thousands of other B&Bs being willing to accommodate unmarried couples.
“It’s sad that cases like this are coming to court in a country that has a great Christian heritage. However, whatever the outcome of my case, my faith is grounded in a sovereign, loving and unchanging God and his eternal plans and purposes.”
Her appeal to the Court of Appeal was paid for by The Christian Institute, a national charity that defends the civil liberty of Christians.
Spokesman Mike Judge said: “I’m disappointed for Susanne that she didn’t succeed on this occasion, but I am pleased that the court has taken a step in the right direction.
“For the first time in cases like these, the court has properly engaged in arguments of justification, and attempted to balance religious rights and sexual orientation rights.
“Balance is the key word. There should be more even-handedness for Christians who hold traditional views about marriage.”