Breakfast and possibly bed

Linda Woodhead and the Westminster Faith Debateshave produced another fascinating survey result, this time about Bed and Breakfast owners and whether they should be allowed to discriminate against people on grounds of sexuality.

The issue has been drawn to public attention by Peter and Hazelmary Bull, who in 2008 refused to let a double room in Cornwall to a gay couple. The case is due to be heard by the Supreme Court this week.

According to the YouGov survey most British people (57%) think B&B owners should be forbidden to refuse accommodation on grounds of sexuality; 33% think they should not and 11% ‘don’t know’.

The really interesting finding is that opinion varies immensely by age. The number thinking they should be forbidden is only 40% among over-60s but 81% among under-24s.

The bad news is that being a religious believer still increases the likelihood of supporting discrimination. Nevertheless the proportion of those in all the major religious groups who say discrimination should not be allowed still outweighs the proportion who say it should.

An article in the Huffington Postlets the B & B owners give their point of view. Annoyingly it begins ‘The Christian owners of a bed and breakfast…’ as though being a Christian explained their position, but this misdescription of Christianity is so common that we let it pass. According to the article,

The hotel operated a strict policy of letting only married couples share a bed, a stance the owners said was due to religious reasons… the couple argued that their policy of restricting double rooms to married couples was not targeted at sexual orientation but sexual practise, believing that sex outside marriage is a sin.

Not only did they have to pay damages after the first court case but there was a slump in custom and they had to sell up.

Which leaves me feeling sorry for them. Not for being mistreated, but for being misled. For thinking that Christianity is about not having sex outside marriage.

Even if it was, their stance is a misuse of power. Nobody was asking them to have sex outside marriage. The gay couple in question were presumably in the habit of having sex with each other, and Mr & Mrs Bull knew they had no power to stop that. All they could do was stop the couple having sex in their building. Because they owned it. Not because they were professors of sexual ethics, but merely because of their power as owners of the building. The law is surely right to forbid such misuses of power.

This leaves me wondering whether the couple may perhaps be influenced by a superstition about purity. Gut feelings about some things being ‘disgusting’ or ‘revolting’ can be very strong. Many people of the Bulls’ generation were brought up with a strict moral taboo on sex outside marriage, and faced a dilemma when their offspring brought a partner home to stay the night. ‘You can do what you like when you are away, but not in my house’ was a common response. It only makes sense if a gut feeling lurks in the back of the mind, protecting the purity of the house rather than the people.

In ancient literature there are plenty of instances where a piece of land or a building needs ritual decontamination after some kind of forbidden act has been performed in it. We today distinguish between two types. There are contaminations we can explain, usually in terms of germs. We then secularise the contamination and overcome it with a chemical like bleach. The other contaminations, the ones we cannot explain in chemical or medical terms, we dismiss as superstition. To imagine that a house is somehow contaminated by an unmarried couple having sex in it looks to me very much like superstition. I have no idea whether the Bulls believe in that superstition, or are emotionally influenced by it, but many people are.

Categorising it as superstition could in theory be a mistake. In principle, in any one case there may be a real effect which science hasn’t discovered yet. Perhaps unmarried sex releases something or other into the air, which then alters the hormones of other people in the building. It sounds pretty unlikely to me. Usually, theories like this don’t get taken seriously unless there is a reasonable amount of evidence in their favour; we have to demand evidence because the number of possible theories is infinite and we would never do anything unless we discounted most of them.

So I conclude that, even if the sex acts of the gay couple were themselves immoral, there was no moral justification for the bed and breakfast owners forbidding them. The corollary is: if you and your partner want to spend a night in my house performing sado-masochistic acts which I personally would find repellent, all I ask of you is that you wash the sheets afterwards.

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