25 October 2012
Letting Church Premises
Since the Equality Act became law in 2010 there has been a certain amount of confusion regarding the use of church-owned premises, especially when they are hired out for use by others. Received wisdom has been that consistency of practice is a crucial factor and this would appear to have been borne out in the recent events at St. Edmund's Roman Catholic Church in Southampton.
The local priest decided to cancel a previous booking for yoga classes in its church hall on the grounds that he considered yoga to be a Hindu religious activity. He explained that the hall had to be used for Roman Catholic activities and that he had banned the class because it was advertised as 'spiritual yoga'.
The issue created national headlines and much scratching of heads.
This is therefore an opportunity to try to clarify the legal background regarding the extent to which churches can and can't restrict who hires their premises.
The Equality Act stipulates that for religion or belief organisations there are some exceptions to equality law that apply only to services they provide. 'Services' in this context doesn't mean religious acts of worship - these are not covered by equality law at all - but something they do for the public or a section of the public. Religion or belief organisations are, in certain circumstances, able to discriminate because of certain protected characteristics which define them. So in some situations, religion or belief organisations and people acting on their authority can restrict or refuse
- membership of the organisation
- participation in its activities
- the use of any goods, facilities or services that it provides, and
- the use of its premises
on the grounds of religion or belief or sexual orientation.
The exception only applies where a restriction is necessary
- to comply with the purpose of the religion or belief organisation, or
- to avoid causing offence to members of the religion or belief that the organisation represents.
A church can also insist that no activities related to other religions or beliefs should take place in the buildings it uses or let its buildings be used by particular people or groups because of their sexual orientation. However, this is only on condition that it does not normally hire out its premises for payment. If it does, it can not discriminate.
In addition, if a religion or belief organisation contracts with a public body to carry out an activity on that body's behalf, the organisation cannot discriminate because of sexual orientation in relation to that activity.
So by way of summary, it would appear that when considering who may or may not use their premises churches are free to decide – so long as the buildings are being let out for worship only.
If the buildings are being let out for activities other than religious worship then the overriding question appears to be whether they are being let out commercially for payment. If they are, the church is likely to be required to accept whoever applies - whether they are approved by the church or not.
In the Southampton case above it is arguable whether yoga classes fall within the category of 'religious worship' and that will therefore be a matter for the church's minister or trustees to decide. Here too it is likely that the question of consistent practice could be crucial. If a church permits yoga classes what happens if a satanist group asks to use the premises?
It has to be emphasised that these points have not so far been tested in the courts so a significant degree of uncertainty remains. Especially in cases involving any element of doubt it would seem wise to obtain legal advice.