Freedom of religion is not freedom to discriminate

A gay couple were turned away from a B&B in Berkshire by its Christian owner, who claimed it would be ‘against her convictions’ to allow them to stay, the Guardian reported on Sunday. The couple, Michael Black and John Morgan from Cambridgeshire, had booked the room in advance but were turned away upon their arrival. From The Guardian:

“When they arrived, Susanne Wilkinson and her husband Francis refused to allow them to stay. The owner said later that she had turned them away because it was against her policy to accommodate same sex couples. Black and Morgan claimed they were treated like lepers as a result of their sexuality. They reported the matter to Thames Valley police and have given a statement to police. Under the Equality Act 2006 it is illegal to discriminate against people on the grounds of sexual orientation.”

It is bad enough that this homophobic incident occurred, but what is worse in my eyes is that the B&B owners themselves are claiming that they are being discriminated against on the grounds of religious freedom.

Mr Wilkinson said:

“We are Christians and we believe our rights don’t have to be subordinated. We have religious freedom.”

Mrs Wilkinson said:

“I don’t see why I should change my mind and my beliefs I’ve held for years just because the government should force it on me.”

The tone is an indignant one – how dare the Government force them to treat people equally! They are Christians and therefore they have a right to treat gay people however they like. Except they don’t. However, their insistence that their bigotry (sorry, ‘conviction’) is part of their religion and therefore deserves special treatment and exemption from the law is not just the opinion of one pair of cranks from Middle England. Yesterday, Christian groups lobbied Harriet Harman over the Equality Bill, complaining that it would allow gay couples to have their civil ceremonies in places of worship. A Government bill on sex education was amended recently to allow faith schools to teach their beliefs about sexual morality, however poisonous those may be. There is currently pressure within the House of Lords to amend the Equality Bill in order to allow Catholic adoption agencies to discriminate against gay couples. Recently, a woman in Sheffield was denied contraception by a religious pharmacist, and GPs are able to refuse an abortion referral on the grounds of ‘conscience’. The same arguments about ‘freedom of religion’ are used in all these instances.

It makes me angry for numerous reasons, but the main thing that gets my goat is that anyone who makes this argument does not understand what discrimination means. All of these people who are fretting over losing their ‘religious freedom’ are not in fact losing it at all, not by any stretch of the imagination. Religious freedom means that you are free to hold whatever beliefs you like – whether that’s a belief in Yahweh, Allah, Zeus, The Force or anything else – and you are free to make life choices for yourself in accordance with those beliefs. To paraphrase Wanda Sykes: if you don’t believe in same-sex bed-sharing, then don’t share a bed with someone of the same sex. Mr and Mrs Wilkinson from Berkshire are free to make that choice, therefore they have religious freedom.

Equal rights legislation doesn’t threaten religious freedom one bit. What it does – or should – remove is religious privilege, and this is entirely different. When a group of people are able to take away a life choice from another group – whether that’s going on holiday, adopting a baby or buying contraception – that is privilege, and privilege is what equality legislation needs to stamp out. Certain religious groups – by no means all of them – are behaving exactly as privileged groups are wont to do when their privilege is threatened: stamping their little feet and claiming that they are the victims here and it’s all so terribly unfair. What we shouldn’t do, as people who are concerned about equality, is fall for it.