Christian minister ‘humiliated’ by hotel bosses over marriage event launches court action
A Christian minister has told of how he was left “humiliated” when hotel bosses ordered him to halt a public meeting in support of traditional marriage.
Revd Harry Coulter, from Carrickfergus Reformed Presbyterian Church, revealed that he has now lodged court papers suing the owners of the Balmoral Hotel in Dunmurry, Belfast, for unlawful discrimination and breach of contract over the incident.
Revd Coulter hired the hotel’s Grand Ballroom for his ‘Marriage Matters’ event in October last year.
But midway through the two-hour meeting, attended by more than 50 members of the public, hotel staff interrupted the event and ordered the minister to end the meeting.
WATCH: ‘I felt humiliated’ – Minister describes moment his pro-marriage meeting was ended by NI hotel
Despite writing to the hotel twice and then sending a legal letter, the hotel has failed to investigate what happened, or offer compensation.
Now formal legal action is being taken and his lawyers have stated the incident left the minister with feelings of “shock, disappointment and frustration”.
Revd Coulter says the hotel acted the way it did because of his “beliefs and opinions on the question of marriage”.
He stated: “we were subjected to the humiliating experience of being targeted for our beliefs and opinions.”
He said supporters expressed sympathy and told him: “we are going to be gagged as Christians from expressing what is the Biblical viewpoint – that marriage is between a man and a woman.”
Recalling his ordeal he said: “I felt humiliated. I actually felt like a criminal, that I had done something wrong… Yet I knew in my heart of hearts that I had not broken the law of the land.”
Leading Belfast legal firm Carson McDowell is acting on behalf of the minister. In a letter threatening court action they told the hotel: “It is clear… our client was the victim of discrimination by you.”
Revealing the detailed background to the case Revd Coulter said, in his initial letter to the hotel, that his wife made the booking for the October 9 meeting on October 1.
“At the time of making the booking, it was communicated that the room was to host an event in relation to the proposed change to the definition of marriage in Northern Ireland under the banner Marriage Matters.
“The Hotel recognised this by its sign ‘Marriage Matters’ located in the entrance area of the hotel. The room in which we were meeting was ‘The Grand Ballroom’ which was accessed from the foyer, through the bar, and at the end of a corridor.
“Staff were closely involved with us in the set up for the meeting. They observed us putting out publicity materials which included the location of a free-standing pull-up at the top of the corridor leading to the Grand Ballroom.
“Staff did not express any concern in terms of the position or the content of the display. It did not appear that other patrons would be in our area of the hotel.
“On 9 October, the meeting started just after 8pm. However, after 9pm, I was waved out of the meeting room by two members of your staff (one a man and the other a woman). They then told me that they had spoken with the General Manager who had instructed that the meeting ‘must stop immediately’.
“The male member of staff said that the issue of marriage is controversial in Northern Ireland and other patrons, having seen the pull-up, were offended that such a meeting would be hosted by the hotel. I offered to speak with the patrons concerned and the general manager. I was told the patrons had left in an angered state and the hotel’s concern was that they would lose their custom and become the subject of negative publicity on social media.
“When I communicated that the meeting was about to finish, your staff reiterated that the meeting must stop immediately as per the instruction of the General manager.
“Indeed, if it did not, the male member of staff stated he had been instructed to enter the meeting and stop it. In the end, I negotiated five minutes to conclude the meeting and was told by the male member of staff that if we were longer than five minutes ‘I am coming in and stopping the meeting myself’.
“This incident occurred around 9.15 pm, although the room was booked by agreement until 10pm.
“I had to return to the room, interrupt the speaker, ask him to finish, and tell our guests (of which there were some 55) that we had to end the meeting on the instruction of the General Manager.
“We were not able to conclude with a time of questions which was to be an important part of the event.”
In his letter to the hotel Revd Coulter states:
“It is clear your decision to stop our meeting related to its purpose. However, the purpose is entirely legitimate and lawful. You offer your conference rooms to the public for hire by groups and organisations.
“In every case, the hirer will be using the room to promote their aims. It is therefore irrelevant whether other guests agree with those aims. Sometimes they may, other times they may not. But we expect your staff to act professionally in the circumstances. The ability to hire a room for a public meeting is an essential part of living in any democratic society which values free speech.
“The content and manner of our presentation was in no way offensive, even though not everyone would agree with our aims. The mere fact someone might be offended about a particular event being held in your hotel does not make the event offensive. The content of our promotional material and presentation were expressed in entirely reasonable terms.
“It is clear the reason for your disproportionate response to our event was because of our beliefs and opinions on the question of marriage. We do not believe your staff would have taken the same approach had our event taken an alternative line on this issue.
“As a result of your decision our meeting was overshadowed. In short, we were subjected to the humiliating experience of being targeted for our beliefs and opinions.”
The law firm’s letter sent on the minister’s behalf sets out the legal framework of his case and states:
“It is clear… our client was the victim of discrimination by you… when he was ordered… to stop the function he was hosting.
“Prior to booking… our client had made clear the purpose of the meeting, namely to host a talk and question and answer session on the proposals for the introduction of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland… to be hosted under the banner of ‘Marriage Matters’ and the beliefs of our client and those who would be in attendance as speakers and guests.
“At no time prior to confirming the booking did you indicate that you would not permit our client to host the event, despite being well aware of its purpose.
“Indeed, on arrival at the hotel our client was greeted with a pre-prepared printed sign stating ‘Marriage Matters’ and pointing in the direction of the room he had hired. Furthermore, your staff were present when our client was setting up his event, including when he was putting up his Marriage Matters pull up banner in the corridor leading to the room.
“You will therefore appreciate the shock, disappointment and frustration of our client when, halfway into their meeting, they were told to immediately stop their meeting, pack up and go home.
“From the content of the conversations our client had with your staff on the evening – which we note you have not sought to dispute – it is clear that the only reason the event was stopped… was because it was promoting and supporting the proposition that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.
“In those circumstances there can be no argument that our client has suffered discrimination by you, as defined in Article 28 of the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998.”
This section of the act states:
—(1) It is unlawful for any person concerned with the provision (for payment or not) of goods, facilities or services to the public or a section of the public to discriminate against a person who seeks to obtain or use those goods, facilities or services—
(a) by refusing or deliberately omitting to provide him with any of them; or
(b) by refusing or deliberately omitting to provide him with goods, facilities or services of the same quality, in the same manner and on the same terms as are normal in his case in relation to other members of the public or (where the person so seeking belongs to a section of the public) to other members of that section.
The legal letter informs the hotel owners: “Plainly your actions on the night fall within the remit of this provision and thus you discriminated against our client.”
In addition, the minister is claiming breach of contract as he paid £100 for the hire of the room – after being kicked out. The booking was from 8-10pm but he was ordered to abandon the session after just over an hour.
The minister said it is important that people regardless of their beliefs are able to express their opinions and views and added: “Otherwise, we get very close to censorship and to state control.”
Revd Coulter is being supported by The Christian Institute which is helping with his legal case. The CI successfully backed Ashers Baking Co. in the high-profile ‘gay cake’ case which was eventually settled in the bakery’s favour at the UK Supreme Court.
CI Deputy Director Simon Calvert said: “For the hotel to take Mr Coulter’s booking, take his money, provide signage and set up the event, only to wreck it part way through, causing maximum inconvenience and embarrassment, is an outrage. The Supreme Court has reaffirmed that belief in traditional marriage is worthy of respect in a democratic society. So we are very happy to be supporting Mr Coulter in his legal action to defend his freedom to hold and express these beliefs without being humiliated like this.”