It has to be said the Equality Bill continues to cause controversy.
After a gay couple were turned away from a B&B in Cookham the tory party's shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling has been exposed as wishing to overturn anti-discrimination legislation thereby allowing guest-house owners to vet future clients.
But that ignores the service provided by the accomodation trade: they accomodate.
There is already a clear distinction between the public and the private spheres, so really this shouldn't be a cause of contention. Yet it does uncover an inherent instability created by the legislation passed to bring about greater equality.
When the laws were written they were designed to introduce the principles of Human Rights in tangible ways to prevent discrimination in a variety of areas. First came moves to ensure sexual and racial equality (which primarily affected employment laws), these were eventually followed by laws which made it a crime to discriminate on the grounds of physical ability, sexual orientation, religion/belief and age.
Which all sounds just perky on initial reading. But as all these laws were collected into its latest incarnation earlier this year it started to become clear that parliament has created a massive grey area by failing to explain what happens when these different rights come into competition with each other, which naturally gives rise to conflicts of interest.
For example, is the law against racial incitement at conflict with the right to free speech? Whose rights outweigh the others, and most importantly, how do we decide?
In effect the anti-discrimination legislation is forcing a choice upon us where society must decide upon a heirarchy of freedoms. The consequence of which is a wealth of confusion and anger as each group feel victimised by those they must defer to with a result that a sense of inequality grows. And we begin to see that action to ensure equality has the reverse effect!
So how do we find a way round this problem by balancing the competing rights to avoid official sanctioning of ill-treatment of people and the sense of victimisation that comes with it?
Equality on it's own simply isn't enough, we must use the balancing force of justice - at which point it becomes helpful to redefine discrimination into negative and positive forms so the law can be clearer about exactly what kind of behaviour it is trying to stop and what is to be encouraged.
Historically democracy has been underpinned by the secular demand for freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state, but when we hear the many vociferous proponents of anti-discrimination legislation using it to further atheist ideology we can start to see how it is no longer an attack on certain forms of 'undesirable' ideas, but on the very pluralism essential for effective democracy.
Rationalism is good in the public sphere and the policy-making process, but it's impossible to police the private sphere where millions of individual decisions are made every second. Furthermore, the consequence of trying is precisely the authoritarian Jacobinism Britain defeated when the Bill of Rights safeguarded the freedom of conscience in 1689 to pave the way for parliamentary democracy and the foundation of the modern secular state.
Which brings me back to the case at hand of a religiously-inclined owner of a B&B turning a gay couple away from her guesthouse, which also happens to be her family home.
In this case there really is no conflict because the boundaries between the public and private sphere have already been defined by the owner for tax purposes (as la Mortimer details). It is merely a matter of confusion caused by ignorance about how, where and when these apply in reality.
It could fairly be said that the Equality Bill is a well-intentioned way of putting us on the road to hell, but we can find diversion from this seeming inevitability without abandoning any hope of achieving a fairer, more just society.
For this there needs to be a wider acknowledgement of the pluralistic values inherent to a secular state, that positive discrimination and the unfair promotion of minority interests can be equally threatening as negative discrimination and the unjust suppression of majority concerns (I think I'll need to return to the question of immigration later).
From all that it should be clear that I don't agree with the hyped-up anger that Grayling's comments opposing the equality legislation shows him to be a homophobe, but I do think it shows him willing to pander to the vested interests of groups potentially motivated by homophobia - which, in many ways, is worse.
Now, as I like addressing controversial areas it would be inconsistent for me to avoid stirring the pot by asking a testy question: are governments of developed economies tacitly supporting the spread of homosexuality in order to address demographic questions such as over-population?
Or, as it was put to me, isn't it our 'duty' to form 'unnatural' relationships in order to save the environment and make a better world?
I can't imagine how that person thought it would be a successful chat-up line - especially given the range and type of 'unnatural relationships' that might encompass!
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