The Supreme Court judge who ruled against a Christian couple who refused a room in their bed and breakfast established to a gay couple appears to have performed an about-face in her decision on the case.
Thought it is too late for these particular defendants, Baroness Hale’s recent comments claiming there should be a ‘conscience clause’ in law for religiously motivated breaches of anti-discrimination law may set an interesting precedent for the future.
The case erupted when in 2008, B&B owners Peter and Hazelmary Bull accepted a booking for a double room from Steven Preddy, believing him to be coming with his wife. When Preddy arrived at the Chymorvah House in Cornwall, to the surprise of the religious hoteliers, he was instead accompanied by his gay partner Martyn Hall.
The proprietors made it clear they could not give Preddy and Hall a double room due to religious reasons and proceeded to turn them away. Subsequently, the gay couple was awarded £3,600 in compensation, after court proceedings which found the Bulls to be in breach of anti-discrimination law.
The Bulls appealed against the court’s verdict in a string of cases which ended up in the Supreme Court. There they finally lost their case after a panel of judges, led by the court’s deputy president Baroness Hale, ruled that the rights of the gay couple should take precedence over the conscience of the Christian couple.
But since then Lady Hale appears to have had second thoughts. In March she told a conference at Yale Law School that laws ignoring Christian perspectives were flawed: “I find it hard to believe that the hard line EU law approach to direct discrimination can be sustainable in the long run.”
And in a speech given to Irish lawyers earlier this week, she asked whether courts would do better to take a “more nuanced approach” in such cases, perhaps developing a ‘conscience clause’ for Christians.
Responding to complaints for Christians about “new forms of unfair treatment”, Lady Hale asked: “Should we be developing in both human rights and EU law an explicit requirement upon providers of employment, goods and services to make reasonable accommodation for the manifestation of religious beliefs?”
Significantly, Lady Hale last week made the unusual ruling that the Bulls should not be liable for the legal costs of their Supreme Court case – sparing them the Christian couple a huge bill which might otherwise have put them out of business.
Last year, the Bulls were nearly forced to sell their hotel. But they have managed to stay in business thanks to support from well-wishers.