It is a story that was never going to end well for anybody, and as the case of the Christian guest house owners who refused a room to a gay couple stumbles towards an inevitably sad conclusion as the Supreme Court deliberates, we can only regret that it ever happened. The hotel owners, Peter and Hazelmary Bull, have already lost battles in the county court and the Court of Appeal and face hefty fines. Now they say their business will have to close because they can’t list it on tourism websites.
My gut reaction is to say – you mean you hadn’t thought of that? You really didn’t foresee the consequences of your actions? This isn’t just a story about the individuals concerned but also about the Christian response, because unfortunately the reaction of many other Christians commentators to this unfortunate and unwinnable fight was to portray it as a stand for Christian rights. I find that remarkably bizarre and troubling.
First, the background. In Autumn 2008 Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy from Bristol travelled to Marazion near Penzance in Cornwall (about 190 miles / 305 km) to stay at the Chymorvah guest house (a vaguish term usually applied to a small family-run hotel where the owners live in part of the building), run by Christian couple Peter and Hazelmary Bull. The Hotel’s website says:
“Here at Chymorvah you will be met by a friendly welcome. Besides excellent food in plenty and comfortable beds, you will find a warm hospitality and much happiness, mingled with good service.”
Hall and Preddy had booked the room in advance, but when they arrived they did not find warm hospitality. The Bulls refused to allow them to occupy the room because of their genders. This has been portrayed in the right-wing press as a battle in which the right of a secular and immoral minority are being given priority over the right of a righteous and traditional moral majority. Unfortunately some Christians have accepted this analysis without question. Christian Today said:
“What this case has sadly demonstrated is that when it comes to the rights of homosexuals and the rights of Christians to live according to their different beliefs, the rights of homosexuals take precedence in the eyes of the law.” (Christian Today, January 2011 )
This relies on the argument that that this was not just a business for the Bulls, it was their own home, and in their own home they should have a right to decide what is acceptable. This is of course ridiculous because by advertising their home on countless websites and by charging those who come to stay they have surely imposed business obligations on themselves. In most guest houses or bed-and-breakfasts I have stayed at the owners have a personal space of their own and a business space in which they relate to people as customers and the relationship is governed by business rules and the law. The judge in this case made it clear that equality regulations wouldn’t apply in their home, the private part of the hotel, but that the public spaces were a different matter. That is something many may have thought was self evident.
Why can’t we just put it down to experience?
Christian Today made an astonishing claim:
“Regardless of their own personal views about homosexuality, the Bulls offered to accommodate Preddy and Hall in separate single rooms to spare them the greater inconvenience of having to find somewhere else to stay at the last minute. They essentially offered a compromise. Accepting the offer and putting the incident down to a bad experience would have been the generous thing to do on the part of Preddy and Hall.” (Christian Today)
Really? Seriously? My wife and I like to travel (though we don’t get to do it all that often) and we have stayed at all sorts of hotels and guest houses, good, bad and ugly. On our honeymoon we stayed in a hotel that had a mouse trap under the bed – not very encouraging. We have stayed in hotels with peeling wallpaper and hotels where we couldn’t find any staff, and guest houses where the drawers in the bedroom contained the owner’s own personal possessions. These things were disappointments but we have, as the article says, put the incidents down to experience. Some (with the distance of passing time) are even funny and make entertaining stories.
But this is very very different and I doubt that it will ever make an entertaining story for anyone. If my wife and I had travelled 190 miles (305 km) to stay in a hotel or guest house only to find that when the owners saw us they decided that we were not the sort of people they wanted in that bedroom, that they didn’t like the idea of what we might do if we were in there together, but they offered us a “compromise” where we could sleep separately in two other rooms, we would not see the humour of it, we would not feel generous. We would be initially disbelieving, then would feel horrified and betrayed and eventually quite possibly murderous! We would certainly want to report the owners to every sort of authority we could think of that might have the power to impose penalties or shut them down. It would be our civic duty!
The hoteliers in this story have a fascinating claim: they were not discriminating on the basis of sexuality but rather morality, in that they have a policy of not allowing unmarried couples to share a bed. This, they say, is based on their beliefs about marriage. Judges have struggled over this argument and so do I. I don’t believe that they ask every pair of guests whether or not they are married, and if they do they must have caused offense before now! If my wife and I had booked in there, would they have asked to see our marriage certificate? The notion that they thought they could judge who of their guests were being moral and who immoral in the bedrooms is preposterous.
The side of justice
Should Christians be horrified that this story makes us out once more to be hurtful uncaring bigots? Remember, there was a perfectly good double room available and booked to the guests yet they were told sorry, we would rather it remained empty than let you or your kind stay in it. Unfortunately some Christians believe that by expecting to be treated with normal human dignity and fairness it is the guests who are ignoring the rights of others. Christian Today again:
“They sued the Bulls knowing that a ruling against them was not only likely to have a detrimental impact on their business, but would also force them to withdraw their policy and accept behaviour in their own home that they deem to be unconscionable. Effectively, Preddy and Hall sued the Bulls with a view to imposing their own beliefs onto them.” (Christian Today )
Of course they did no such thing. No-one has the right to treat another with anything other than dignity. I’m too young to have ever seen a guesthouse with a “vacancies – no coloureds” sign in the window, but I’ve seen the news photographs. I never thought such blatant discrimination would be seen in our country again, and certainly not with Christians at the forefront.
If I sound angry it is because, even though this case has dragged on for several years old (or perhaps because of that), once again Christians end up looking like inhospitable, inflexible, defensive people standing up for our own rights rather than following Jesus’ commands and standing up for the needy and oppressed. This is not how it is supposed to be! It is time to stop attempting to cling on to some supposed position in society and instead to care about the position of others. We need to stop trying to impose our values and start demonstrating the love.