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Discrimination against “sincere beliefs”?

January 21, 2011

A few days ago I wrote about the case of the B&B owners who turned away a gay couple who were in a civil partnership. They expressed disappointment that they were found guilty of discrimination, saying that their actions were based on “sincere beliefs”.

Yesterday I had an argument with someone who made a number of claims:

  1. There was no discrimination against the gay couple;
  2. In actual fact it was the Christian couple who were being discriminated against due to their religious beliefs; and
  3. If it had been a Muslim couple running the B&B they this case wouldn’t have happened.

In an effort to gather my thoughts on these points I’d like to explore them, their implications, and their counterarguments.

I think we probably need to start by defining what exactly we mean by discrimination. I’ll work with the following definition:

Showing prejudice towards a person or group of people based on a class or category to which they belong.

Was there discrimination against the gay couple? They were in a civil partnership. The Bulls turned them away because they weren’t married. However, as the judge in the case pointed out, the law states that on a legal basis marriage and civil partnership are equal. As they are running a business the BUlls are not allowed to treat the two groups differently. They refused a room to a couple in a civil partnership, but wouldn’t have done so if they were in a marriage. Legally they are therefore guilty of discrimination.

It could be argued here that just because something is in the law it isn’t necessarily morally justified. This is obviously true – take for instance the recent repeal of the blasphemy laws, or the fact that slavery used to be legal. We move on, and hopefully we move in the right direction. Does this argument hold in the case of the law that says the Bulls should have treated Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy as married?

I don’t belief it does. It is morally required to treat gay people as equals. I can see no justified argument that could be made to the contrary. There are (bad) arguments that are made, but are they based on anything other that religious faith? I can’t think of any that aren’t. This is clearly a case where the law is in place to ensure that businesses are run in a way that doesn’t let people act in a morally culpable way with the sole justification being their personal prejudices. The only way to argue against this is to say that there is a higher “law”, based on your faith. If there is, how do I decide the higher “law” that is correct. Is it your faith that is correct, or someone else’s?

Was there discrimination against the Bulls because of their religious beliefs? No. The Bulls have the right to hold their beliefs. They (probably) have the right to act on these beliefs in their private lives, even if this results in morally repugnant behaviour. But when they operate a business they are required to follow the law, and this clearly requires that they do not discriminate against civil partnerships. They were found guilty based on their actions as a business; this was nothing to do with the fact that their actions were grounded in Christian faith. They were “discriminated” against based on the fact they broke the law.

Now, the argument “it wouldn’t happen to a Muslim” has been going around quite a bit on-line following this case. I think it can safely be said to be wrong. Alas, I can’t find an equivalent case of a Muslim B&B owner turning away a gay couple, but there are numerous stories of religious “rights” being usurped by law that don’t involve Christians. Take the Hindus who complained that they should be allowed to keep their “sacred” cow that had TB (I think it was TB…). They weren’t allowed to keep it, and it was killed to stop the spread of TB. Or look at 2008, when a Lord, in a ruling banning the deportation of a particular woman and her son, said:

Shari’a law as it is applied in Lebanon was created by and for men in a male dominated society.

This certainly isn’t the law pandering to Muslims.

I think people who make this argument in relation to the case in question here are saying that yes, the Bulls did discriminate. Surely instead of trying to pull the same, tired defence out of the bag, they should be bemoaning the fact that there are Christians who think it is “Christian” to treat other human beings as second class citizens.

What would the implications be if it was accepted that this wasn’t discrimination against Hall and Preddy? If we say that this action was morally justified, how do we distinguish between this form of discrimination and discrimination based on skin colour? Or on gender? If my “sincere beliefs” say that women are inferior, am I allowed to act upon that belief? If so, how is this morally acceptable? If not, please explain to me the system of thought that allows you to discern the difference between the two cases.

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