LONDON — An Israeli lesbian couple is celebrating an “amazing” precedent after a judge ruled that a wedding hall could not reject their business.

The women, Yael Biran and Tal Yakobovitch, who live in south London, England, were awarded NIS 60,000 (about $15,000) last week after the venue at Yad Hashmona, near Jerusalem, refused to hold a wedding party for them in 2008. The wedding hall owners also had to pay NIS 20,000 in legal and court fees in a ruling by Judge Dorit Feinstein of the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court.

“The law is really progressive,” says Biran. “It says that no business or service provider in a place that is open to the public can discriminate on the grounds of sex, religion, color, race or sexual orientation. But this is the first time that it has been put into practice for gays and lesbians.”

‘The law is really progressive… but this is the first time that it has been put into practice for gays and lesbians’

She speculates that others who have faced discrimination “do not want a fight. Their first instinct is to say that the [business owners] are idiots, and walk away.”

Biran and Yakobovitch, however, chose to take action because “it needed to be done. As much as I would have loved to say that I am a strong person and if treated like that I will not be offended, I was offended. It felt horrible.”

The Israeli-born couple were introduced in 2005 when Yakobovitch, now a 34-year-old theater director, visited London on business. Biran, 38, had been living in the UK since 1994, first as a student and later working as an animator.

In 2008, they cemented their relationship with a civil marriage ceremony in London, which their Israeli families attended. However, they decided to hold a party in Israel as well. They settled on the Yad Hashmona hall as both their parents had been to successful functions there, and they liked the outside area.

Initially, says Biran, the owner was very helpful. But then, in a telephone discussion, she asked whether Biran would be walking around in a wedding dress.

“I said we both would be, and the owner went quiet. Then she asked, ‘Is this a party for two women?’ Her reaction was, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, we don’t do things like that.’”

Out of shock, says Biran, she ended the conversation.

‘We were talking in an upbeat way about the wedding, then her tone fell, and suddenly you’re dirt’

“I didn’t react as I would have expected — I went quiet,” she says. “We were talking in an upbeat way about the wedding, then her tone fell, and suddenly you’re dirt. I started crying.”

When she told her brother, who overheard her side of the conversation, what had happened, “he got angry. I phoned Tal and she said that we have to do something about it. She phoned again the next day to find out if they were standing behind [their decision], that they will not have us because we are lesbians, and the woman went into a long monologue.”

In a bizarre twist it emerged that the hall owners were not Orthodox Jews but Messianic Jews, who believed that closing the venue to gay and lesbian couples was an issue of religious freedom. There had been no indication on their website that they were religious.

In their legal defense, they wrote that “Homosexual relations and lesbian ones are against the will of God…. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament treat this phenomenon as abomination… This is our very strict and committed belief.

“As far as we are concerned, should a lesbian or homosexual couple book a room in our hotel for a night, a day or an hour, we will refuse — which proves that financial implications do not concern us but only faith which is above all.”

Judge Feinstein accepted that there was a clash here between freedom of worship and the right to equality. However, she determined that the wedding hall was not a religious venue but a public business and therefore cannot discriminate, according to a 2000 law forbidding discrimination in products, services and entry to entertainment venues and public places.

‘The judge said that if you want to open a business in a democracy, you need to check that you can follow the law. If you can’t, don’t open the business’

According to Biran, “The judge said that if you want to open a business in a democracy, you need to check that you can follow the law. If you can’t, don’t open the business.”

In addition, the judge accepted that some of the expressions directed at the couple constituted sexual harrassment. In her judgement, she wrote that “sexual harrassment does not only mean taking advantage sexually, but also — perhaps mainly — hurting a person’s dignity because of their gender or sexual orientation. In this case, the honor of the plaintiffs was indeed hurt because of their sexual orientation.”

Biran says that this idea has gained currency in Israel following the rows, this past year, over the exclusion of women from public arenas such as the front seats of some buses.

“Telling women to move to the back of the bus is sexual harrassment,” she says. “Most people think of sexual harrassment as someone trying to get you into bed. It’s actually more about humiliating someone because of their sex, treating someone as lesser than you because of their sexual orientation.”

She says she has been overwhelmed by the support from other Israeli gays and lesbians as well as from the people leaving comments on Israeli websites reporting the case, as Israeli talkbacks are notoriously aggressive.

The couple have never experienced homophobia before in Israel, she says, although “partially it’s because you stay away from areas where you think you’d feel uncomfortable.”

Ultimately, Biran hopes that the ruling will make other institutions aware that they must obey the law regarding discrimination against gay couples.

As for the money that they won in compensation, the couple will be putting it in two saving accounts: one for their two-year-old son, and one for the child that, Tal, is currently expecting.

This way the owners of the wedding hall, says Biran, “will help us raise our children.”

Cutting the cake. Yael Biran (left) and Tal Yakobovitch. (photo credit: courtesy)

Cutting the cake. Yael Biran (left) and Tal Yakobovitch. (photo credit: courtesy)