A UK Christian couple has been forced to put their hotel up for auction, even after having been cleared of all accusations in a religious discrimination case. Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang said that business at their nine-bedroom Bounty House hotel has collapsed and they are losing about £8,000 per month.
The couple is receiving help from the Christian Institute and is considering legal action against Merseyside police and the Crown Prosecution Service. The charges were brought in April 2009 by a guest at the hotel who is a convert to Islam. Ericka Tazi accused the couple of insulting her religious beliefs during a discussion about religion, saying that Mohammed was a “warlord” and that Muslim women were oppressed, after she left her bedroom wearing a traditional Muslim Hajib. Merseyside Police launched an investigation and charged the couple for a religiously aggravated public order offence.
In a decision that was hailed as a victory for freedom of speech, District Judge Richard Clancy of the Liverpool Magistrates Court threw the charges out, saying Mrs. Tazi’s account could not be relied upon. Merseyside police have come under heavy criticism for harassment of the law-abiding hoteliers.
“Before the charges, we had not really felt the effects of the recession as we received regular business during the week from patients who attended pain-relief courses at Walton Centre, part of Aintree Hospital,” said Ben Vogelenzang told local media. Despite receiving donations from Christians around the world, the couple say they have debts up to £400,000.
“Our occupancy was always around 80-90 per cent, but since the charges we’ve only had two to three guests a week. Even since we were cleared, business has not picked up – all because of an innocent conversation that took place in our dining room.”
The couple, who have five adopted children, may now be forced to put their business on the auction block to pay creditors. Should the hotel fail to sell, they could face personal bankruptcy.
“The hotel was running very well, and we had a deal in place with a hospital nearby to provide accommodation for patients on a month long treatment program,” Ben Vogelenzang said. “But as soon as this unfounded slur was concocted the hospital stopped using the hotel and a lot of our other trade suffered badly because of the knock-on effects.”
Despite being cleared of all charges, the couple say that because the case took eight months to come to trial, their business suffered a severe downturn and the relationship with the hospital program was lost. “We have tried our best to save it but the bank will not give us any more leeway. Due entirely to the court case we are now unable to pay our bills and we have been forced to bring in an auctioneer to sell the hotel.”
“I am also very bitter about the way this was handled by Merseyside Police,” he said. “One particular officer got the bit between her teeth on the allegations and she was like a dog with a bone. There was no real evidence against us but she would not let it drop.”
At the hearing, the charges were dropped immediately. Judge Richard Clancy said at that time, “You have raised the question of free speech. The European Union gives all of us a right to religious freedom, and people have gone to some length to preserve that integrity.”
A spokesman for the Crown Prosecution Service responded to the verdict, saying, “We would still pursue a similar case in the future, as we believe it is in the public interest.”
Merseyside Police also refused to admit wrongdoing. A spokesman said, “We respect the decision of the court today. Hate crime is not just racism – people can be targeted because of their disability, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation and gender identity.
“All incidents of hate crime are investigated thoroughly by Merseyside Police and we will continue to work with our partners, particularly the CPS, to pursue such incidents through the courts.”
But Ben Vogelenzang has said he and his wife are “devastated” at losing their livelihood, even after being completely cleared. “Many people thought that when we won in court, everything would be OK. In reality, it has brought us to the brink of destruction, so it has not been a victory at all,” he told the Daily Mail.