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Should Christian B&Bs accept gay couples?

Gold crucifix resting on bible

Whose right to live as they choose takes precedence? Thinkers like Aristotle have mulled over such questions for centuries, says philosopher Mark Vernon in the Magazine's series on modern ethical dilemmas.

Everyone in British society enjoys equal protection of their right to live the way they choose. But what if this impinges on the way someone else lives their life?

Consider a tough case that's been in the news. Should Christian hoteliers be forced, by law, to offer hospitality to a gay couple?

Last week, Bristol County Court found that Peter and Hazelmary Bull, of Chymorvah Hotel in Cornwall, acted unlawfully in refusing Martyn Hall and his civil partner Steven Preddy a double room.

Image caption Direct discrimination, said Hall and Preddy

Judge Andrew Rutherford decided this on broadly Kantian grounds, that individuals in civil partnerships must be treated in the same way as individuals who are married. It's their right.

But it's not a ruling everyone agrees with.

The Evangelical Alliance, for example, points out that rights clash. Why should the rights of the gay couple overrule the rights of the Christian hoteliers who honestly believe homosexuality is wrong? Mr and Mrs Bull say it's against their Christian beliefs to allow unmarried couples to share a bed.

It's a challenge that is often heard in other contexts too. And there is no easy way to resolve the problem when human rights are a zero-sum game. It looks as if one person's justice is another's prejudice. So can utilitarianism do better?

Jeremy Bentham argues that justice makes more people happy. So you need to do a calculation. On the one hand, there is the unhappiness of the hoteliers to consider and those who support them. On the other, is the happiness of the gay couple and their supporters.

The latest British Social Attitudes survey might be one way to decide. It shows only 36% of the population believe sexual relations between individuals of the same gender are wrong.

So, presumably, more people are happy if gay couples can stay in double rooms guesthouses. Utilitarianism implies that Judge Rutherford was right, but for the wrong reasons.

Then again, to make such decisions on polling evidence alone seems a weak way to seek justice. In fact, gay people themselves might worry about it. If the population as a whole is on their side now, it certainly hasn't been in the past, and might well not be again in the future. Surely, it's better to debate the issue and so establish justice for gay people on firmer ground.

Image caption The Bulls said no double rooms for the unmarried

This is what Aristotle would argue. He would ask questions about the quality of the relationship concerned. Do civil partnerships enable gay individuals to flourish as human beings? The answer would presumably be yes.

Or, do civil partnerships enable gay couples to contribute to the common good? Again, yes, because their public show of commitment might be an inspiration to others to stay committed too.

But you've got to have the argument. And not all will agree - not least, in this case, conservative Christians.

Mark Vernon, the author of Philosophy For The Curious and Ethics For The Curious, will tackle more modern dilemmas throughout the week. Tomorrow, Tomorrow, is social mobility good?

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