Recent press reports suggest that we can shortly look forward to one of the first cases under the Equality Act 2010 regarding discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of services to the public.
The allegation is that a lesbian couple booked a hotel room in Brighton by telephone, but when they arrived they were turned away on the basis that the hotel “only catered for heterosexual couples and families”.
Liberty, the human rights charity, is acting for the couple. Its press release states that despite the couple’s protests, the hotel manager became increasingly aggressive, raising his voice and bundling them out of the hotel. They told him they had nowhere else to stay, but he threatened to call the Police before shouting somewhat ungallantly: “I don’t accept rejects in my hotel”. The couple were unable to find alternative accommodation at such short notice and so had to return home. Liberty has signalled its intention to bring a claim that the couple were discriminated against on the grounds of their sexual orientation in the provision of services by the hotel.
Whilst this may be one of the first instances of discrimination in the provision of public services to hit the headlines under the Act, this form of less favourable treatment has actually been prohibited for four years, since the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007. In January this year, a Judge ruled under those Regulations that a Cornish hostel run according to the owners’ version of strict Christian principles directly discriminated against a homosexual couple in a civil partnership by refusing to let a double room to them even though it would happily have hosted a heterosexual married couple. It is hard to think that the outcome will be very different here.
There is an obvious potential tension between the right to religious freedom and the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation, as evidenced by the spate of recent cases concerning Christian registrars refusing to carry out civil partnership ceremonies. Thus far the prohibition on discrimination has generally taken priority in the UK Tribunals, essentially on the entirely sensible basis that you can think or do what you like in pursuance of your beliefs, however bizarre they may be, but only up to the point where it begins to impinge on other people’s own rights and freedoms.
This recent story acts as a timely reminder that businesses must be wary of discrimination not just towards their employees, but also to members of the public, and not only in the arena of sexual orientation. The Equality Act 2010 prohibits such discrimination across all nine protected characteristics (age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation). A review of staff training and product descriptions may be appropriate. Does this signify, for example, the end of the traditional “18-30s” holidays? Or perhaps they will just be re-branded as for those who are 18-30 in spirit, whatever the ravages of time upon the body, and thus become open to anyone whose idea of a good time involves excessive alcohol, sunburn and inappropriate sportswear.