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23 February 2012

Churches meeting in public buildings

Churches meeting in public buildings

The Evangelical Alliance has recently intervened in instances where member churches were prevented by the local registrar from holding Sunday meetings in a building which also happens to have a licence for conducting civil partnerships.

Refusal was ostensibly on the grounds that the same room cannot be used 'regularly' for religious purposes. This was despite the fact that the amount of usage was some three per cent of the total usage time. It seemed that some local registrars were over-zealously interpreting the rules.
 
In one case, the member church was meeting on Sunday afternoons in a function room in a town centre hotel and conference centre. Following the advertising of their meetings in the local press, the senior registrar of the local council contacted the hotel to warn them they would cancel their licence unless they stopped the church from meeting. The hotel general manager was sorry to do this because they had a good relationship with the church but felt they had no alternative.
 
When the church contacted the senior registrar, she turned out to be hostile and unhelpful and even indicated that she was contacting all the hotels in the town to make sure they knew they were not allowed by law to permit churches to meet on their premises if they also hosted civil partnerships. Remarkably, she also warned the church not to bother challenging them on grounds of the Equality Act! When the church tried to find a different hotel venue to meet, they unsurprisingly found that no hotel would now 'touch them with a bargepole'.
 
The church therefore lost its meeting place and a place to worship. With the local authority refusing to deal with the situation in a reasonable way the Alliance became involved. It seemed to be a case where a local authority was either ignorantly or deliberately misinterpreting official guidelines in a religiously discriminatory way.

In its consequent discussions with the General Register Office it became apparent that official guidelines were being misinterpreted and churches who meet in similar public buildings need to be aware of this possibility. The Alliance requested the guidelines to be clarified while warning that it would otherwise consider legal action.
Essentially the official guidelines state that:

The premises must not be religious premises as defined by section 6(2) of the Civil Partnership Act 2004. These are premises which are used solely or mainly for religious purposes or which have been used solely or mainly for religious purposes and have not been subsequently used for other purposes. A building that is certified for public worship would fall into this category as would a chapel in a stately home or hospice. However, premises in which a religious group meets occasionally might be suitable if the other criteria are met.

The Civil Partnership Act 2004 describes a religious building as:-

Premises which -
(a) are used solely or mainly for religious purposes, or
(b)  have been so used and have not subsequently been used solely or mainly for other purposes.

This is also reflected in the Approved Premise Regulations 2005.

The use of the building by the church on a Sunday afternoon in one of the function rooms, given the other secular purposes the approved room is used for, would not appear to qualify as a religious building as defined above nor is it likely that there would be a public perception that the building was a religious building. Prompted by the General Register Office, this view was accepted by lawyers acting for the local authority who stated that:

The use of the room on a weekly basis for a religious meeting will not mean that the building is a religious building within the meaning in the Act. The room is not 'solely or mainly' used for religious purposes; at most it is less than 1/7th used for religious purposes. [The local authority] can allow such use but this should be monitored and any significant increase in such use could lead to a new determination. [The local authority] may wish to ask [the hotel in question] to notify [the registrar] in writing of any further religious use over and above the current use; if such use becomes significant then [the local authority] could reconsider the matter at that point.

A final confirmation has now arrived from the local authority to the church confirming that they can now continue to hold their meetings as before.

It would make sense for any member church that wishes to hold meetings in a public building such as a hotel, college or school, to check whether it is licensed for civil partnerships first. If it is, it will be sensible to obtain approval from the local authority and ensure that the extent of usage of the room does not cause the local authority to consider it is acquiring religious status.

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