The Supreme Court has held that Christian hotel owners discriminated against a homosexual couple in a civil partnership by refusing to let them stay in a double room.

Background

Mr Hall and Mr Preddy are civil partners who booked a double room in Mr and Mrs Bull’s hotel by telephone for a two-night stay in September 2008. The couple had therefore not seen the hotel’s online booking form which stated:

Here at Chymorva we have few rules but please note that out of a deep regard for marriage we prefer to let double accommodation to heterosexual married couples only – thank you.

When the couple arrived at the hotel, they were informed of the hotel policy and were told to seek alternative accommodation, as there were no available twin rooms. The couple brought proceedings against Mr and Mrs Bull, claiming that the hotel owners had discriminated against them based on their sexual orientation.

Mr and Mrs Bull argued that they did not restrict guests from staying at their hotel on the basis of their sexual orientation, but because of their genuine belief that sex outside heterosexual marriage was sinful. They argued that the restriction also applied to unmarried heterosexual couples, and that even if they had discriminated, this was justified by their right to manifest their religion.

The Bristol County Court held that Mr Hall and Mr Preddy had suffered direct discrimination (ie that the refusal to allow the couple to stay in a double room was because of their sexual orientation, which is unjustifiable); alternatively, it was indirect discrimination (ie the restriction applied to all unmarried couples, which was unjustified). Mr and Mrs Bull appealed to the Court of Appeal, which held that this was a case of direct discrimination.

Supreme Court

Mr and Mrs Bull appealed to the Supreme Court. The main issues to be considered included (1) whether this was a case of direct or indirect discrimination based on sexual orientation; and (2) if it was indirect discrimination, whether the hotel’s policy was justified.

The Supreme Court unanimously dismissed the appeal but was divided on whether Mr and Mrs Bull’s actions amounted to direct or indirect discrimination. The majority held that Mr and Mrs Bull had directly discriminated against Mr Hall and Mr Preddy based on their sexual orientation, by refusing to accept their homosexual relationship as the legal equivalent of a married couple. They also rejected the argument that the hotel’s policy would have been the same when faced with an unmarried opposite sex couple. A minority considered that Mr and Mrs Bull discriminated against all unmarried couples, and this therefore amounted to unjustified indirect discrimination.

The Supreme Court also considered Mr and Mrs Bull’s right to manifest their religion, but held that it was necessary in a democratic society to limit that right to protect the rights of others.

Comment

The general rule is that suppliers of goods and services are permitted to choose their customers. However, the Supreme Court reinforced the message that they must not do so based on an individual’s sexual orientation. This principle applies whether in a commercial or employment context and also applies to religious organisations whose sole or main purpose is commercial. The clear purpose of equality legislation is to ensure equal treatment, and there is no exception for individuals or businesses that hold particular religious beliefs.