The County Court recently delivered a much publicised judgment in the case of a homosexual couple who were refused a room with a double bed at a bed & breakfast in Berkshire (Black and Morgan v Wilkinson, 18 October 2012, Reading County Court, Unreported).
The owner of the B&B refused the homosexual couple a double bedroom due to her religious beliefs that all forms of sex outside marriage (whether homosexual or heterosexual) are sinful. The Court held that this constituted direct discrimination contrary to the regulations that preceded the Equality Act 2010. The Court also held that the treatment was indirect discrimination and rejected the defence of justification.
The Claimants were awarded £1,800 each by way of compensation for injury to feelings (which is within the lowest band of awards for injury to feelings - see the Vento case.
In reaching the judgment, the Court followed the decision of the Court of Appeal in Bull and Bull v Preddy and Hall, which concerned a similar scenario. The Court of Appeal had held that a homosexual couple (unlike a heterosexual couple) could never comply with the requirement of marriage (due to their sexual orientation). Further, marriage is a criterion which is necessarily linked to the characteristic of heterosexual orientation. Accordingly, the Defendant had directly discriminated against the Claimants on the grounds of their sexual orientation.
The Court rejected the Defendant's arguments based on Articles 8 (right to respect of private and family life) 9 (right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion) of the European Convention of Human Rights 1950. The Court concluded that there was a restriction on the Defendant's right to manifest her religious beliefs, but that the restriction was justified as a proportionate means of protecting the rights and freedoms of homosexuals.
The decision in Bull and Bull is currently being appealed to the Supreme Court. We anticipate that this decision will follow suit (the Judge granted permission to appeal). With several cases concerning whether there is a right to manifest one's religious beliefs within the public and commercial spheres currently awaiting a decision of the ECrtHR, it may be some time before we have the final word on the hotly contested issues in this area of the law.
On related notes:
- the Northern Ireland High Court has held that Northern Irish legislation which restricted the right to apply for adoption to married couples or individuals who were neither married or in a civil partnership, breached the rights of unmarried couples and those in civil partnerships under Articles 8 and 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights and could not be justified.
- the long running issue of the Catholic Care adoption agency (which works with difficult to place children but does not wish to work with same-sex couples) has seen its latest decision. The Upper Tribunal has rejected the charity's appeal against the Lower Tribunal's refusal to permit it to change its governing documents to include a restriction that it provides its services to heterosexual couples.