How should individuals react when their consciences come into conflict with the law of the land? There are some circumstances where the issue is pretty clear. We can categorically say – from a safe distance in time and space, at least – that the German churches should have resisted Nazism far more robustly than they did.
But to listen to some Christians today, one would think that here in the United Kingdom we also face a creeping evil which will, if we are not careful, end up evacuating Christianity from public life, turning our society into a moral desert and exposing Christians to state persecution.
These apocalyptic visions are unlikely to be fulfilled, and as the Archbishop of Canterbury remarked at Easter, overheated claims about the treatment of Christians in the U.K. are unhelpful and untrue. And, as he might have said but didn’t, when set alongside the traumas of Christians in Nigeria, Iraq and many other places, they are rather insulting.
So whether Christians – or anyone else – should be allowed to refuse bed-and-breakfast accommodation to people on the grounds of their sexuality is a rather more complicated issue than it might look, from either side.
There is unquestionably a sense among some Christians that their deeply held views in this and other areas are being ignored or ridiculed. At the same time, the legislation that leads to this sort of situation is generally praiseworthy.
We want a society in which no one faces discrimination because of their race, gender or creed. To argue that they may still face discrimination because of their sexuality seems uncomfortably like special pleading.
Nevertheless, in the particular instance of bed-and-breakfast accommodation provided in someone’s home, there is arguably a case to be made for some sort of exemption, as shadow home secretary Chris Grayling has said. He was responding to the case of Susanne and Francis Wilkinson, who turned away a gay couple and are facing legal sanctions because of it. As Mr. Wilkinson said, “We are Christians and we believe our rights don’t have to be subordinated. We have religious freedom and we are not judging that but we are not prepared to have that sort of activity under our roof.”
It is that “under our roof” which is telling. The fact that someone lets out rooms in their house does not make it any less a home. Many people have a deep emotional and spiritual attachment to their homes, and a sense that they need to be their own masters and mistresses in terms of what goes on in them. Forcing them to condone or facilitate practices of which they disapprove so strongly is deeply illiberal. The argument that they shouldn’t be providing bed-and-breakfast services if they aren’t prepared to obey the law doesn’t wash either, as these businesses long predate the relevant legislation.
Their position is clearly summed up by Tom Forrest, a Scottish bed-and-breakfast owner, who welcomes gay people to his establishment, but only in separate beds. “I feel it’s about time that people decided to live and let live,” he says. “What you want to do under your own roof is your own business. What I want to happen under my own roof should also be my business.
“I just want the law to allow me to say I don’t accept this in my home. If I had a pub, I could turn someone away. But the way the law stands at the moment, I can’t do that in a bed and breakfast. That’s wrong.”
Against that, Patrick Harvie, Member of the Scottish Parliament, says, “We don’t reduce discrimination by ignoring it or making exceptions. We have made massive progress on reducing discrimination and that’s happened because people have been willing to challenge it head on.”
So while the 2007 Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations has reduced or eliminated some real injustices, it has also pitted two sides against each other in an uncompromising spirit of confrontation, in which there are winners and losers.
It is hard to see that forcing a choice between criminalizing otherwise law-abiding people of conscience on the one hand and creating aggrieved and resentful gay people who have been denied their rights on the other is either helpful or desirable – but that’s what our lawmakers have done.