Thursday, 20 January 2011

Christian Bed and Breakfast Establishments

The owners of a Bed and Breakfast establishment in Cornwall have been sucessfully sued for a breach of the Sexual Orientation Regulations 2007. I do not have a transcript of the Court judgment and so have to rely on the news reports Telegraph, Guardian, Mail, BBC for the facts.

(PS ADDITION I am grateful to Sam Sarmiento for pointing me in the direction of a copy of the Judgment on the Judiciary Website. It is unusual to be able to obtain copies of County Court Judgments so it is good that the decision has been taken to publish Judgments in County Court cases such as this one where there is considerable public interest in the case)

The result was perhaps not too surprising in view of the general way sexual orientation discrimination law is working these days however the fact that the Judge has given leave to appeal does indicate that he considers the legal position to be unclear or at least arguable.

The fact is that the couple were not actually refused a room they were refused a room with a double bed and that is a policy which the Christian B&B owners have also applied to heterosexxual couples who were not married. The relevant point in this case seems to be the fact that the Gay couple were in a Civil Partnership and under reg 3(4) of the regulations Civil Partners shoudl be treated on the same basis as married couples (at least that is how the regulation is usually interpreted it is not that clearly worded )

Conversely under reg 6 Discrimination is legal when applied to premises where the owner (landlord) also lives as is the case here so there is room for an appeal court to reach a different decision to the County Court Judge who tried the case.

I have a couple of points relating to proportionality which is should discrimination law apply at all to such a small business as a B&B. The essence of any small or family run business is that it is highly personal and individualist indeed that is why people go to B&B's rather than main hotels. If as a society we want individualism and difference then surely we need to allow the freedom to be different.

As for thos who oppose any freedom for discrimination be referring to racial discrimination in Nazi germany or the American South or South Africa but I would disagree with these comparisons. The problem in these societies was not that people were allowed to discriminate but that they were obliged to discriminate by the laws applying in those countries. It seems to me that society should allow discrimination to be legal at least for small businesses and private associations even if society disaproves of that discrimination.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Religious Freedom Day, 2011

January 14th has been declared by President Obama as Americas "Religious Freedom Day" in honour of the passing of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom drafted by Thomas Jefferson. Though of course only relevant to the Law in Virginia it has been hugely influential in the US Supreme Court cases considering the 1st amendment to the US Constitution and I do see it as one of those documents which are worthy of being considered and followed by other countries.

I annex a copy of the Statute below and it is worthy of notice that the Statute justifies religious freedom by reliance on the will of God ie it is a Statute defending Freedom of Religion and not Freedom From Religion which seems to be the way that modern Courts and Legislators are going. I also emphasise those sections which I believe the most important

"Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as it was in his Almighty power to do;

that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time; that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical;

that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor, whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind;

that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which in common with his fellow-citizens he has a natural right; that it tends only to corrupt the principles of that religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments, those who will externally profess and conform to it;

that though indeed these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion, and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own; that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order;

and finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them:

Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

And though we well know that this assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act to be irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation, such act shall be an infringement of natural right."

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Saskatchewan Marriage Commissioners

The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal has issued a decision in the case of Marriage Commissioners Appointed Under The Marriage Act (Re), 2011 SKCA 3. I have only had a brief opportunity to read the judgment and will comment on it detail later but in general terms it appears to follow the same logic as the English case of Ladele v London Borough of Islington [2009] EWCA Civ 1357

The Court has decided that proposed legislative amendments to the Saskatchewan Marriage Act 1995 which would have allowed Saskatchewan’s marriage commissioners to refuse to perform same-sex marriages on religious grounds are contrary to Saskatchewan Anti Discrimination Law and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As I blogged back in October 2009 the Ontario Canadian Supreme Court in the 2004 case of Halpern et al. v. Canada had decided that the Common Law definition of marriage as between one man and one woman was not consistent with the Charter and subsequently Same Sex Marriage had become legal throughout Canada though the specific legislation remains the responsibility of the individual provinces in Canada.

The Saskatchewan government had proposed two potential legislative amendments to the Marriage Act in order to deal with situations where some marriage commissioners were called before the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission or the Courts for refusing to perform same-sex marriages: one amendment would have permitted marriage commissioners appointed before November 5, 2004 to refuse to solemnize a marriage contrary to their religious beliefs, and a second would have allowed any marriage commissioner, no matter when they were appointed, the same right.

The court said that its decision was based on section 15(1) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which prohibits discrimination based on characteristics such as race and sex. Though the Charter makes no mention of sexual orientation, the courts have nevertheless read sexual orientation into this section. The court said that a law empowering marriage commissioners to deny their services to homosexual individuals would violate section 15(1) as it would treat them differently than other people and would do so in a discriminatory fashion based on their sexual orientation.

The Court claimed that allowing marriage commissioners to withhold their services because of personal religious convictions would undercut the fundamental principle that government services must be provided to all members of the public on an impartial and non-discriminatory basis.

What that judgment however seems to ignore, as did Ladele, the possibility of allowing individual government employees a right of conscientious objection so long as the "service" was provided by someone. On a personal note I find it somewhat Orwellian to use a "Charter of Rights and Freedoms" in order to justify forcing people to do something against their conscience and to say that that even a Democratically elected Legislature does not have the right to give people freedom to refuse to perform an action. That is not a Charter of Rights and Freedom so much as a Charter of Coercion and is an object lesson in Judicial activism exercising a corrosive influence on democracy and freedom.