In 2008 the Appellants, who are committed Christians, refused the Respondents a double room at their private hotel on the grounds that the Respondents were a homosexual couple in a civil partnership.
This was contrary to the Appellants’ online booking form which specified that double rooms were only available to “heterosexual married couples.”When the case commenced in 2009 the applicable law was found in the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 (“EASOR”). This Act has now been superseded by the Equality Act 2010. The Respondents argued that the refusal to provide them with a double bedroom indirectly discriminated against them on the grounds of sexual orientation and was unlawful. The Appellants argued that their actions did not constitute either direct or indirect discrimination since they differentiated not on the basis of sexual orientation, but on marital status. The Appellants also suggested that EASOR should be applied compatibly with their right to manifest religious beliefs under Article 9 of the ECHR.
At first instance and in the CA it was held Appellants’ actions directly discriminated against the Respondents. On appeal, the SC agreed. On the issue of direct discrimination, the previous judgments did not favour sexual orientation over religious belief. Had the Respondents refused hotel rooms to the Appellants because of the Appellants’ Christian beliefs, the Appellants would equally have been protected by the law’s prohibition of discrimination. The relevance of EASOR is that the Respondents were to be treated as not materially different from a married couple. The only remaining reason for the Respondents’ treatment by the Appellants was therefore their sexual orientation, an example of direct discrimination.
The Appellants accepted that their policy constituted indirect discrimination but maintained that this was justified. However the SC found it difficult to see how A’s belief that sexual intercourse between civil partners is sinful could be justified by reference to matters other than B’s sexual orientation, since by definition such intercourse was between those of the same sexual orientation. Moreover, the SC ruled it is in the public interest to encourage committed relationships, whether homosexual or heterosexual. The purpose of the EASOR was to secure that those of homosexual orientation were treated equally. The policy was therefore not justified.
Finally on the ECHR issue the Appellants’ rights under Article 9(1), which protects the manifestation of religious belief, were engaged. However, EASOR’s interference with those rights was justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim: the protection of the rights and freedoms of people such as the Respondents.
This much publicised and controversial case has concerned Human Rights groups and religious organisations. However the case may also have far reaching ramifications in the field of Employment Law, particularly where allegations of discrimination and the Equality Act 2010 are involved.
Vaughan Jacob / 1st Dec 2013
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