The first week of the Conservative Party's election campaign has reminded me of the series of books entitled Where's Wally?, in which readers are challenged to search for a glimpse of an individual who has been made almost invisible. Since the Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling, was recorded attacking the rights of same-sex couples, the Tories have kept him in the background, despite his senior position in their party.
On a tape made public last Sunday (4 April), Grayling was recorded saying that guest house owners should be allowed to turn away same-sex couples on grounds of “conscience”. He added that this should not apply to hotels, only to people who sell bed & breakfast in “their own home”.
But by definition, somewhere that sells bed and breakfast cannot simply be a private house. It is a commercial service, with all the obligations that this implies.
Grayling said, “If it's a question of somebody who's doing a B&B in their own home, that individual should have the right to decide who does and who doesn't come into their own home”. By this argument, B&B owners who are conscientiously racist would be allowed to refuse guests on grounds of ethnicity.
Cameron has said that a Tory government would not seek to change the law on equality in the provision of goods and services. However, Grayling has not withdrawn his comments, let alone been removed from his position. This calls the party's commitment to equality into question and that's why I'll be attending the peaceful protest and street party outside the Conservatives' national offices tomorrow.
There are crucial issues at stake here. As well as issues of equality, the dispute highlights important differences over the nature of public services. Grayling's determination to see a guest house as a private house rather than a public service may have more to do with a belief in property than in liberty or conscience.
I heard the news about Grayling's comments last Sunday as I travelled to discuss the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal on BBC Breakfast television. In the studio, I suggested that if churches (Catholic and otherwise) are to learn from the scandal, they must recognise that part of the problem stems from an assumption by church leaders that Christian authorities should not be subject to the same level of accountability as other bodies and individuals.
But the other religious stories making headlines that day gave the distinct impression that many church leaders have failed to learn this lesson. A statement released ahead of the election, signed by former bishops Michael Nazir-Ali and George Carey, challenged candidates to address the concerns of Christians. It then listed a very narrow range of issues (as my colleague Jonathan Bartley pointed out in his blog). Many of their concerns are focused on Christians grimly clinging on to their remaining privileges rather than using their values to make positive contributions to a multicultural society.
Grayling's comments on B&Bs similarly give the impression of Christians insisting that they should have 'rights' which over-ride those of other people. It is both absurd and outrageous that these comments should have hit the headlines on Easter Sunday, the day when Christians focus on the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus was killed by an unholy alliance of political and religious leaders who thought they had rid themselves of a troublemaker.
Much of Jesus' teaching was devoted to resisting hypocrisy and the abuse of power. He certainly never encouraged his followers to demand privileges for themselves while denying them to others. He practised radical hospitality and was denounced for eating with 'sinners' and showing friendship to prostitutes. So who would Jesus turn away from a bed & breakfast?
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