Council praised for prompt action against discriminatory Earl

Tony Grew May 30, 2008
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An aristocrat who refused to allow a gay couple to hold their civil partnership ceremony at his castle has had his licence revoked by Devon County Council.

The Earl of Devon will no longer be able to host straight wedding ceremonies at Powderham Castle near Exeter as of January 2009.

The castle’s website describes it as “a perfect setting for wedding receptions, corporate functions, events – and a great family day out.

“Powderham Castle is a truly majestic place to hold your wedding reception.

“The castle rooms are available to hire throughout the year and there are many different room hire combinations to suit your individual requirements.

“Powderham Castle is an extremely flexible venue for wedding receptions.”

“I have to follow my religion in this case,” the Earl of Devon told the Daily Mail.

“This is the way it has to be. I have no option. As a Christian I have to object to this.”

Gay equality organisation Stonewall praised the prompt actions of the council and described their decision to revoke his licence as “significant.”

It is the first time such action has been taken against a venue in light of the Sexual Orientation Regulations, which came into force last year. Civil partnerships became legal in December 2005.

It is against the law to discriminate in the provision of goods and services on the grounds of sexual orientation.

The Earl, Hugh Courtenay, refused to allow Bernard Horrocks, 40, and Glenn Sontag, 35, to hold their ceremony at his property.

The couple contacted Stonewall, who wrote to the council about the hereditary peer and pointed out that he was in breach of the law.

“This case is significant because in previous cases we have written to people, pointed out to them the law and they resolved it and effectively backed down,” said Jonathan Finney from Stonewall.

“Where people are running businesses, most realise they will be losing money and change their mind.

“The couple came to us for some support some weeks ago.

“A lot of time all that people want is a resolution.

“A lot of lesbian, gay and bisexual people do not know the law is there to protect them.”

Mr Finney said that since the SORs came into force Stonewall has supported a significant number of LGB people who were facing discrimination from hotels, campsites and other amenities, and the vast majority of cases are resolved satisfactorily.

No cases have been brought to court yet but the Equality and Human Rights Commission has indicated it is willing to back test cases.

Mr Finney said Stonewall prefers to try to resolve issues without having to go to court, but added:

“There is no doubt the law has had a positive impact. In the past businesses would have not have changed their approach.”

He also praised Devon County Council, a member of the Stonewall Diversity Champions programme, for their clear actions.

“They took it very seriously and contacted him and then responded very promptly. We pleased with that response.”

A spokesman for Devon County Council said:

“The decision by this venue to refuse to accept some civil partnership ceremonies has left us no option but to revoke the licence.

“We are very conscious there are already ceremonies booked over the coming months and it would cause disruption if these were cancelled.

“Our registration service has not received notification of any ceremonies after January 1st and so this is the date on which the licence will be cancelled.”

Stonewall recently launched a new free telephone service in response to a growth in demand for gay-specific advice and information about the status of lesbian, bisexual and gay people.

The number to call is 08000 50 20 20.

Stonewall said it already receives more than 400 phone enquiries every month and their website received 1.2 million hits in 2007.

The advice line is open Monday to Friday from 9.30am to 5.30pm.

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