Hall & Preddy v Bull is a landmark case in the UK dealing with homosexual rights and unlawful sexual orientation discrimination.
Facts of the case
On 4th September 2008, Mr Preddy booked a double room for himself and his civil partner, Mr Hall, at a private hotel in Cornwall run by Mr and Mrs Bull.
As committed Christians, Mr and Mrs Bull held the belief that sexual intercourse outside traditional heterosexual marriage was sinful and their hotel operated a policy that double bedrooms were only available to “heterosexual married couples”. This policy was stated clearly within its online booking form.
Mr Hall and Mr Preddy were a homosexual couple in a civil partnership. Mr Preddy had booked a double room at the hotel via telephone for two nights beginning on 5th September 2008.
At the time, in an oversight by Mrs Bull, she failed to inform Mr Preddy about their policy when the booking was made by phone. On arrival at the hotel, the couple were informed they could not stay in the double bedroom. Mr Preddy and Mr Hall left to find alternative accommodation.
In March 2009, Mr Preddy and Mr Hall, supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), issued proceedings against the Bulls under the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 (EASOR).
Under Regulation 4 of EASOR, direct or unjustified direct discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation is unlawful and is defined by Regulation 3(1) as “where individual A treats individual B less favourably than others on the ground of B’s sexual orientation.”
Regulation 3(3) states that direct discrimination exists when “person A applies a general policy or practice to person B and others not of B’s sexual orientation, which puts B at a particular disadvantage compared to those others, and the policy or practice is not reasonably justified by reference to matters other than B’s sexual orientation.”
Regulation 3(4) determines that Regulations 3(1) and 3(3) that civil partnership and marriage are to be treated exactly the same.
Mr Hall and Mr Preddy argued that the Bull’s refusal to allow them to stay in a double room was unlawful under Regulation 4, whilst the Bulls contended their actions did not amount to discrimination under either Regulations 3(1) or 3(3) since they differentiated not on sexual orientation but on marital status, and that they had also applied the same criteria to unmarried heterosexual couples.
They also suggested that EASOR Regulations were compatible with their right to manifest their religious beliefs under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
Under ECHR, freedom of religion has two component parts. First is the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion which surrounds the right to hold or change a religion or belief, and cannot be restricted in any circumstances.
Second, the right to manifest one’s religion or belief, which under Article 9(2) ECHR can be restricted but only if the restriction is “prescribed by law and necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”.
Central to the case was the issue of whether the equality legislation limited the manifestation of the Bulls’ religious beliefs in contravention of their human rights to freedom of religion under art.9 of the ECHR, or whether any such limitation was necessary for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
First instance decision
At first instance, His Honour Judge Rutherford found that Mr and Mrs Bull had discriminated against Mr Hall and Mr Preddy. The Bulls were granted permission to pursue an appeal.
Court of Appeal decision
The Court of Appeal held that the Bull’s actions did directly discriminate against Mr Hall and Mr Preddy under Regulation 3(1) and unanimously dismissed their appeal.
Since heterosexual couples can marry whereas homosexuals cannot, a homosexual couple could not comply with the requirement to be married, which is necessarily linked to the characteristic of heterosexual orientation. The restriction was therefore absolute for homosexuals but not for heterosexuals and constituted direct discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.
The court found that the Regulations did limit the Bull’s right to manifest their religious beliefs, but in such a way that was essential in a democratic society to protect the rights of others (Mr Hall and Mr Preddy), and as a result, was not incompatible with the ECHR.
As there was direct discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation, it was also not necessary to consider whether or not there was also indirect discrimination.
Supreme Court decision
Mr and Mrs Bull subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing their policy did not constitute direct discrimination under Regulation 3(1), that their policy did amount to indirect discrimination, but the indirect discrimination was justified, and that if their policy did contravene EASOR, it should be read and given effect with their Article 9 ECHR, right of freedom to manifest their religion.
Lady Hale cited several reasons which pointed to the rationale behind the court’s judgment, including:
- Civil partnership laws originated to enable same-sex couples to have parity of rights with opposite sex couples which are worthy of equal “respect and esteem.”
- Both civil partnership and marriage rights exist to “recognise and to encourage stable, committed, long-term relationships. It is very much in the public interest that intimate relationships be conducted in this way. Now that, at long last, same sex couples can enter into a mutual commitment, which is the equivalent of marriage, the suppliers of goods, facilities and services should treat them in the same way.”
- By permitting a class of persons to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation would allow the creation of a class of people who are exempt from discrimination legislation.
When passing the Regulations, Parliament was well aware of deep-seated religious objections and permitted an exemption for “religious organisations”. If Parliament had intended to provide an exemption for private religious persons, it would have done so.
- The Bulls were in fact free to manifest their religious beliefs in many other ways. For example, they could have chosen not to offer double bedrooms to any couple.
The Supreme Court unanimously dismissed the Bull’s appeal, regarding the fact that Mr Hall and Mr Preddy being civil partners was significant when deciding whether their treatment at the hands of the Bulls, such that it amounted to direct discrimination as provided by the Sexual Orientation Regulations.
Lady Hale went on to stipulate that those married, and people in a civil partnership are materially in the same position. She, therefore, had difficulty seeing how discriminating between married and civilly partnered people could be anything but direct discrimination.
Considering the point of indirect discrimination, the Bulls accepted their treatment of Mr Hall and Mr Preddy amounted to indirect discrimination but argued it was justified on grounds of their religious convictions.
Lady Hale noted that the purpose of the Sexual Orientation Regulations was to ensure that those of homosexual orientation were treated equally with heterosexual people when accessing goods, facilities, and services.
Moving on to consider the Human Rights Act, she noted although the right to religious freedom is a fundamental foundation of a democratic society, it could be limited to protect the rights of others. Lady Hale stated the Bulls could not get around the fact that UK law prohibited them from treating Mr Hall and Mr Preddy differently, notably less favourably, than a married couple.
Reiterating that sexual orientation is a core component of an individual’s identity and referring to the Strasbourg principle that “very weighty” reasons are needed in order to justify discrimination on such grounds, Lady Hale concluded the Bulls were free to manifest their religion in other ways, such as symbolism on their stationery, provision of bibles, or decorative religious relics in the hotel.
The court also unanimously agreed that the legislation prohibiting providers of services from treating civil partners less favourably than heterosexual married couples does not disproportionately interfere with the ECHR to manifest their religious beliefs.
Implications of the decision
The general rule that suppliers of goods and services are given carte blanche to choose their customers has been clarified by Bull v Hall insomuch that they must not do so based on a person’s sexual orientation.
The principle carries through into commercial and employment contexts and also applies to religious organisations whose main or sole purpose is commercial. What this case lays bare is that there is no exception for unequal treatment by those individuals or businesses that hold particular religious beliefs.
The case attracted extensive media interest, in particular the perceived clash of rights between religious belief and sexual orientation.
LGBTQ rights organisation Stonewall said they were “pleased” with the outcome and that the court had upheld the rights they had “fought so hard to secure”.
However, a statement from the Christian Institute who were aiding the Bull’s legal battle criticised the result, saying that “the powers of political correctness have reached all the way to the top of the judicial tree.” Their spokesperson went on to say, “This ruling is further evidence that equality laws are being used as a sword rather than a shield. Christians are being side-lined.”
However, the Supreme Court judgment was clear that the central issue in the case was not pitting one set of rights against another, but to decide whether Mr Hall and Mr Preddy had been discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation.
Ultimately, the fatal factor in the Bull’s case was that UK equality legislation gives civil partners an equivalence to that of marriage.
It was therefore not open to the Bulls to argue a distinction between civil partners and married couples, because civil partners are treated equally in law to married couples and it was inevitable that the finding of direct discrimination would surely follow.
Resolving situations of competing rights
The following approaches and principles should be considered in the context of potential conflicts between rights:
- Non-discrimination – any restriction should not be discriminatory and bear more directly or more harshly on followers of one religious belief than another.
- Impartiality and neutrality – any protection or restriction by the state should be generic in nature and not focussed on a particular belief or religion.
- Respect for the right of others to believe – the principle of respect is sensitive to imbalances of powers and seeks to ensure “that those who ‘enjoy superiority’ over others, educationally, socially, politically, or in any other fashion, are not unduly advantaged in an exchange of ideas.” This is summarised as respecting the believer as opposed to the belief.
- Fostering tolerance – believers accepting the legitimacy of a divergence of views on matters of significance to them within the wider society of which they are part. The same applies to non-believers who are faced with forms of religion or beliefs they might find unacceptable.
- Personal autonomy – this is protected under Article 8 ECHR within the right to respect for private and family life, home, and correspondence.
- Proportionality – this means that all interests at stake must be considered and balanced against one another between the rights of the individual and the interests of the state, employer, service provider or others. Considering the Bull v Hall case, this balancing of interests involves the question of whether the restriction or limitation of the right could have been achieved with less restrictive or discriminatory means.
- Legality – any restrictions must not be irrational or arbitrary.
The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.