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Tribunal tramples on private property rights

By | Vancouver Sun on Jul 31 2012

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Chalk up another victory for the “human rights” industry, where hurt feelings almost always trump real rights and freedoms. In a recent case decided by the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, the rights and freedoms sacrificed at the altar of the tribunal included the private property rights and freedom of contract of a retired couple who own and operate a bed and breakfast.

In this case, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ruled Les and Susan Molnar, a retired couple with strong religious convictions, discriminated against two gay men by cancelling their telephone reservation for a room with a single bed at their bed and breakfast.

Finding that the B&B was separate from the Molnars’ personal living space and run like a commercial business and not a church, the tribunal held that the Molnars were required to comply with the law of the province which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Regardless of their sincere and deeply held religious beliefs, the Molnars were ordered to pay the gay couple more than $4,500 in damages, travel expenses and lost wages to attend the tribunal hearing. No doubt the gay couple was angry about being denied a reservation; no doubt their feelings were hurt.

However, my reaction – had I been in their shoes – would have been relief that the Molnars had “outed” themselves so I wouldn’t have to spend a night under their roof, or pay them any of my hard-earned money. I would have wanted to boycott them just as much as they wanted to avoid me.

Nevertheless, it’s troubling that the Molnars should lose their sovereignty over their property by the simple act of inviting paying guests into their home.

If they hold a dinner party, they are free to exclude people on whatever discriminatory grounds they choose. Why should accepting money for the use of the room change that?

The Molnars have no legal obligation to provide B&B services to straight couples.

They can shut the business down entirely if they wish – as indeed they have, owing to this controversy. But then why should they have any legal obligation to provide services to gay couples?

When the law imposes such an obligation, it is tantamount to giving certain favoured groups of people (in this case, gays) a right to temporarily expropriate the Molnars’ property against their will.

It is the presence of robust competition, not the existence of so-called human rights laws, that ensures that minorities will have access to services. Business owners may have prejudices galore – but indulging those prejudices costs money.

If the Molnars won’t rent to gays, somebody else will.

In fact, there are already businesses who have caught on to the idea that the gay community is an economic force to be wooed.

Gay travel operators rent out entire cruise ships for all-gay cruises to the Caribbean and other choice destinations.

In the end, the reality is that the knife cuts both ways.

What would a gay-or lesbian-owned B&B that caters exclusively to gay patrons do if a devout religious person wanted to book a room at their establishment?

What if they wanted to share the teachings of their Bible that homosexuality is a sin with other gay patrons? What if this made the gay patrons, not to mention the gay B&B owners, uncomfortable?

Under current B.C. law, the B&B owners would have to reserve a room to the religious customer and if the tribunal values consistency at all, they’d have to find for discrimination on religious grounds if a room were denied to this religious customer. I see a future human rights tribunal case in the making.

Chris Schafer is the executive director of the Canadian Constitution.

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