The argument over the proposed gay rights legislation, already in force in Northern Ireland, has been brought to the boil once again. Much of the debate centres around a hypothetical Bed & Breakfast, where the ‘deeply religious’ proprietor would be having to go against their own beliefs in order to legally provide serivces.
Critics say the regulations would mean hotels could not refuse to provide rooms for gay couples
This is a popular argument for those arguing against the laws, because it conjours sympathy for a single person (probably white and middle-aged) being persecuted for their religion. However, it is a highly problematic hypothetical, for several reasons, and should be questioned.
First, it is not just homosexuality that all the major religions label immoral. They also say that any sexual intercourse outside of marriage is immoral too. So, the aldulterers who sneak away to a seaside hotel for the weekend are also offending religious beliefs of the owner, and could be denied service on this basis. For the sake of consistency, we would expect that the same hotel would also ban a couple with children who were not married.
To this, the ‘deeply religious’ proprietor might say “well, I didn’t know that the first couple were adulterers, or that the second couple were not married.” This would be an unwittingly ironic, since it evokes the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. If it is good enough for the US Military, it should be good enough for the good old British B&B! If they do not know for sure that those two men will be having sex, then it cannot be said that the proprietor endorses such behaviour, unless it is also said that they endorse the extra-marital heterosexual activity mentioned earlier. There is a definite hypocrisy here, and ‘religious belief’ is merely a politically correct shield behind which plain bigotry can hide.
If the claim to religious belief is genuine, then these service-providing adherents might find themselves in even more trouble. There are passages in the bible and Qu’ran which forbid inter-religious marriage and can even be interpreted to mean a ban on inter-racial marriage (for example Deut. 7). Are such couples – immoral in the eyes of the religious – to be denied services too? If not, why not?
The debate, as framed, grants the religious a special privilege which is not extended to those with other kinds of beliefs. If an exemption were made for those of a particular religious creed, an aetheist proprietor who also happened to disapprove of same-sex relationships would still be subject to the law, and would rightly claim to unfair treatment under that law. Whether or not one subscribes to the effectiveness of anti-discrimination laws, one must concede that they be applied equally. If the religious complain that their beliefs are under attack, then we who support this legislation must begin by saying “well, yes, necessarily”.
Next, supporters must assert that the debate is not between two minority groups (gay libertines and religious prudes, say)… but between the majority view (which says homosexuals should be treated equally) and the minority view (which says homosexuals should be treated differently). The onus is on those who support the legislation to explain why the values of the population as a whole trump the values of those with religious belief. Unity at Ministry of Truth has already taken a tweezer to this issue.
In balancing the respective rights in such a case; those of the hypothetical plaintiff, who has a ‘public right’ not to be subjected to discrimination, against those of the hypothetical defendent, who has a ‘private right’ to manifest their personal beliefs, one must first consider whether the matter at the heart of the complaint belongs to the public or private domain. If the matter is ‘public’ then the public rights of the complainant take precendence, if it is private, then the private rights of the defendent should win out.
I am inclined to the idea that if you charge money for people to stay in your house, you are opening it up to the public realm. I think it is difficult to argue the opposite, since you will be bound, and indeed protected, by the public laws of commerce. Furthermore, the regional development agencies will have spent tax-payers money to encourage punters in your direction – an especially pertinent point in the case of the rural or seaside B&B. If you choose to provide services, then you have to give equal access to all tax-payers, even the gay ones.