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Employment Law Worldview

No room at the inn for the “fundamental right to discriminate”

Posted in Discrimination

After a rare break from crass public utterances, Nick Griffin (MEP), was back on form last week, posting a controversial diatribe on Twitter about our supposed “fundamental right to discriminate.”  Mr Griffin embarked on an ill-considered rant against a gay couple after they won a landmark court case against a Berkshire Bed-and-Breakfast owner for discriminating against them on the grounds of their sexual orientation, posting their home address online and calling for a “British Justice Squad” to “give them a bit of drama”.

The B&B owner told the court that her beliefs as a staunch Christian led her to refuse to allow unmarried couples, whether homosexual or heterosexual, to occupy rooms with double beds and that to prevent her from vetting her guests in line with her religious beliefs would “infringe her human rights”.  Following the judgment, Mrs Wilkinson said:

We believe a person should be free to act upon their sincere beliefs about marriage under their own roof without living in fear of the law. Equality laws have gone too far when they start to intrude into a family home.”

The rather fundamental problem with this is that Mrs Wilkinson and her husband did not refuse to allow the couple to share a bed in their family home, but rather in their premises in which they were running a business.  As such Mrs Wilkinson and her B&B are subject to the Equality Act 2010, which makes it unlawful for service providers to discriminate on grounds of any protected characteristic under that Act.

These facts are remarkably similar to those of Bull v Hall and Preddy, another B&B –v- gay couple case.  In both cases, the B&B argued that because it would equally refuse to allow an unmarried heterosexual couple to share a bed, its actions could not be discriminatory.  However, the Court of Appeal in Bull set out why this argument is fundamentally flawed: in this country, homosexual couples are currently unable to marry, so by default can never meet the selection criteria set by these pious hoteliers.  It will be interesting to consider Mrs Wilkinson’s position in relation to married homosexual couples if the law changes to allow them to do so.

Both cases illustrate just how seriously the courts are taking the Equality Act when considering potential discrimination in a “commercial sphere”.  Employers which provide a service to the public should not expect to rely successfully on a ‘But my religion says I must,’ defence.  Have who you want in your house as a friend but that argument is lost as soon as you provide commercial services to the public.  Bull is due for appeal in the Supreme Court, however, and its outcome will invariably have a bearing on this later verdict.

As for the blustering Mr Griffin, it seems that he has got completely the wrong end of the stick, even leaving aside the arguable incitement to violence and unarguable invasion of privacy implicit in his Twitter post.  In proclaiming that the judgment amounted to “heterophobia” (whatever that means) and “persecution of an innocent Christian couple”, Mr Griffin seems more out of touch than ever, not only with equality laws but also with the difference between the right to have a belief, however genuine and however unattractive in any particular respect, and inflicting that opinion on others in a breach of their genuine fundamental rights.