There has been a big court case going on in England regarding a gay couple who sued the owners of Cornish Bed & Breakfast because the gay couple was denied occupancy based on the owners of Cornish B&B’s Christian faith. You can read the story here. The ruling just came down this week that it was unlawful for the owners of the B&B to deny service to the gay couple based on their Christian beliefs. The gay couple, who sued for 5,000 pounds, won 1,800 pounds in damages. If you want to read in extreme detail about the case from a British legal perspective, go here. But what I want to talk about is the scenario if this situation happened in America, in an American context.
So let me set the fictional scenario:
A gay couple takes a trip to a cute little bed and breakfast on Lake Michigan in Geneva, IL. The owners of this B&B, which we’ll call The Inn, are a straight, married Christian couple with conservative Christian values. They have run The Inn for a number of years and still work at The Inn on a daily basis.
In taking the reservation The Inn didn’t realize it was a gay couple, as the reservation was made under just one person’s name. There has been a rule at The Inn for a number of years saying that they have the right to deny service based on their Christian values, and there has never been any issue with that rule. But when the couple showed up to check in, the owners of The Inn, who were working behind the front desk at that moment, saw they were a gay couple, asked them if that was the case, and then denied them service – explaining to them that their faith believes that same-sex couples go against biblical law and thus, cannot stay at The Inn – and all of their money was refunded on the spot.
The gay couple then sues for discrimination based on sexual orientation. The remainder of this post are some of my thoughts regarding a potential scenario like this one…
Within American law there is such a thing as a Religious Exemption. The simplest way to define it is that religious entities are exempt from having to abide by certain federal law when it conflicts with their religious belief system. The best example of such an exemption is that Catholic hospitals are exempt from having to perform abortions, and cannot get in legal trouble for denying abortion requests, even though abortions are legal in the Untied States.
The separation between Church and State provides for such exemptions to take place. Though there are many twists and turns when it comes to the details of the public policy of ‘religious exemptions’, here is what I see as my thoughts of what is fair to the Church and fair to the State:
Registered churches, charities and NGOs that are legally documented as having a religious affiliation should be able to dictate their own hiring and service practices based on their registered religious beliefs.
Hiring is defined as: Once a person is hired in a full time position, regardless of gender, race, disability or sexual orientation, they are mandatorily given full benefits of insurance, 401k, pension, etc. In essence the registered church, charity or NGO would have the right to hire individuals according to their theological belief system. The same is true for the service practices—e.g. Catholic hospitals have the legal right to not perform abortions.
If you are not a registered church, charity or NGO but rather just a person of faith running a company, organization or institution, those entities’ laws and service requirements must align with the Federal regulations of equal protection and anti-discriminatory practices. Though the owner might be a person of faith, their for-profit entity does not fall under the religious exemption for registered churches, charities or NGOs and thus, must fall under the non-exempt rules and regulations for hiring and service.
Therefore that gay couple would have every legal right to sue for anti-discrimination and win. However, if that B&B was a Christian retreat center that governed their hiring practices and service under the religious exemption as a church, charity or NGO, they would then have every right to deny service under the exemption.