A devoutly Christian bed & breakfast landlady who was ordered to compensate a gay couple after refusing to put them in a room with a double bed has failed in an appeal against the decision but has been granted permission to argue her case before the Supreme Court.
Susanne Wilkinson refused to let Michael Black and John Morgan, who are not civil partners, share a bed in her B&B. The married mother-of-four believed that sex before marriage is a sin and ‘against God’s law’ and argued that she consistently declines to permit unmarried couples – whether heterosexual or homosexual – share a bed under her roof.
However, a county court judge ruled that she had unlawfully discriminated against the gay couple on grounds of their sexual orientation in breach of the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 and awarded Mr Black and Mr Morgan damages of £1,800 each.
Whilst dismissing Mrs Wilkinson’s appeal against that decision, the Court of Appeal took the rare step of granting her permission to appeal further to the Supreme Court on the basis that the case raised ‘difficult and controversial questions of moral judgment’ that required resolution.
She pleaded that the decision against her amounted to a violation of her human right to freely practise her religion. However, the Court ruled that it was bound by authority to ‘reluctantly’ find that she had directly discriminated against the gay couple. She had also indirectly discriminated against them in that, as the law stands, no gay couple could be ‘married’ and her policy therefore disadvantaged Mr Black and Mr Morgan when compared to heterosexual couples.
The bar that she imposed could not be viewed as a proportionate means of fulfilling her genuine religious beliefs. Mrs Wilkinson’s B&B was ‘essentially a commercial rather than a religious enterprise’ and, although it was ‘possible’ that she might have to shut her business due to the court’s ruling, such considerations could not justify the discrimination that had occurred.
Mr Black had emailed Mrs Wilkinson to book the room and had paid a £30 deposit. However, when he and Mr Morgan arrived, she told them that ‘there was a problem as they had booked a double room’. The couple say that they were embarrassed and humiliated when the landlady told them ‘she did not like the idea of two men sharing a bed’ and refunded the deposit before they left. However, Mrs Wilkinson insists that she would have been happy to let the couple sleep in separate rooms, had the same been available, and would have reacted in exactly the same way if confronted by an unmarried heterosexual couple.