"The law is a[n] ass" supposed Mr Bumble in Dickens' Pickwick Papers. An ass it may well be, but yesterday - in a groundbreaking decision - the law judged B&B owners Peter and Hazelmary Bull of acting illegally in denying a room to a gay couple. And rightly so.
The couple were awarded £1800 each in damages.
This case has been the subject of intense debate in recent months. Conservative MP Chris Grayling even went so far as to publicly back the B&B owners' position. Some more fundamentalist Christian groups have alleged that this represents an anti-faith conspiracy and that the Bulls are victims of a deliberate campaign by the pro-gay lobby to discredit their belief system.
Hazelmary Bull issued a statement in which she complained that in today's society "some people are clearly more equal than others" and stressed that her policy not to let rooms to unmarried couples extended to heterosexual as well as homosexual people. It was a shocking admission of discriminatory practice and a strange one coming from an adherent of a religion whose founder preached "do not judge, for as you judge so you to will be judged".
The Bulls are not being discrimiated against on the basis of their beliefs - which they are entitled to hold and express. They're simply being told that legally, if they wish to provide a public service, they can't discriminate as to whom the service is offered on the basis of sexuality. Like Peter Tatchell, I would defend to the hilt someone's right to express their beliefs, even if that person happens to be expressing views I find repugnant. However, it is another thing entirely to actively deny someone the right to receive a service that is freely offered to others. Allowing the Bulls to continue with their unreasonably discriminatory practices would require a raft of equality laws to be revisited and tightened following a probable deluge of similar exemption claims.
The Bulls' actions were intolerant and judgemental; the defence of their position ill-judged and arrogant. I for one am delighted that behaviour which was clearly unethical has now also been deemed unlawful.
Furthermore, the Bulls' behaviour was far from Christian. Most Christians I know are not homophobes - in fact, some of them are gay. I was speaking with one of my gay Christian friends yesterday about this very issue. His response was along thse lines: "homosexuality is becoming more normalised now, even in the church. These people are forcing their beliefs onto others, which is hardly very Christian. They're also very judgemental and seem more pre-occupied with people's sexual practices and living arrangements than anything else about them. I can't imagine Jesus Christ behaving like that, you know, he was with the lepers, the down-and-outs, the prostitutes and other people who were rejected by their society. Come to think of it, I can't see anyone in my church holding such disgraceful attitudes towards gay people."
I completely agree. But so often whenever Christians are in the news, it's usually because of some fundamentalist stance they're making which is unfair on the growing ranks of liberally-minded churchgoers who are inevitable tarrd with the same brush. So why don't all the moderate, sensible, tolerant Christians out there reclaim their faith from the fundamentalists - and while they're at it help kick homophobia into touch?