Labour & European Law Review Weekly Issue 262 29 March 2012
It is illegal under the Equality Act 2010 to discriminate against someone on the grounds of their sexual orientation. In Bull and Bull v Hall and Preddy, the Court of Appeal said there is no exception to that rule, even if it impinges on someone else’s religious belief.
In September 2008, Mr Preddy and Mr Hall, a same sex couple in a civil partnership, booked a double room for two nights over the phone at the guesthouse run by Mr and Mrs Bull.
However, when they got there, the Bulls refused to allow them to stay because, as Christians, they said they only let double-bedded rooms to heterosexual married couples. They said that had Mr Hall and Mr Preddy booked online, they would have seen the policy displayed clearly on the website.
As there were no rooms with twin beds available, Mr Preddy and Mr Hall were given their money back and had to find alternative accommodation.
The two men made a complaint under the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007, claiming that the hotel owners directly and / or indirectly discriminated against them on the grounds of their sexual orientation.
For their part, Mr and Mrs Bull argued that that the policy had nothing to do with sexual orientation as it applied to all unmarried couples.
They also argued that the Regulations had to be read in conjunction with their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), including articles 8 (respect for private and family life), 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion) and 14 (prohibition of discrimination).
County Court decision
The county court judge said that the only conclusion that could be drawn from the refusal of the Bulls to allow the men to stay was that it was because of their sexual orientation, which constituted direct discrimination. The fact that the policy was based on marital status was irrelevant, as regulation 3(4) made clear there was no material difference between marriage and a civil partnership.
He also said it constituted indirect discrimination, in that the Bulls had clearly applied a provision, criterion or practice which put Mr Hall and Mr Preddy at a particular disadvantage. It could not be justified because, although the aim was legitimate (to abide by their genuine religious beliefs), it was not proportionate in the circumstances.
He also ruled that the Regulations were compatible with the ECHR. The right of the Bulls to a private and family life could be met in the part of the building that they did not use as a guesthouse. And although the Regulations affected their article 9 rights, this was qualified and could be limited to protect the rights and freedoms of Mr Hall and Mr Preddy. They were, he said, “a necessary and proportionate intervention by the state to protect the rights of others”.
The Bulls appealed, arguing that the policy constituted indirect discrimination that could be justified on the grounds of their deeply held religious beliefs.
Court of Appeal decision
However, the Court of Appeal upheld the county court decision. It said that the Bulls were effectively arguing for a further exception from the requirements of the Regulations over and above those that already existed.
The Court did not think this was necessary, holding that “to the extent to which the Regulations limit the manifestation of the Appellants’ religious beliefs, the limitations are necessary in a democratic society for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”.
It concluded that ‘in a pluralist society it is inevitable that from time to time, as here, views, beliefs and rights of some are not compatible with those of others. As I have made plain, I do not consider that the Appellants face any difficulty in manifesting their religious beliefs, they are merely prohibited from so doing in the commercial context they have chosen.’
This is an interesting case which deals with conflicting rights but underlines the principle that the right to manifest one’s belief, as opposed to the right to hold it, is qualified by such limitations as prescribed by law.