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28 June 2011

Under our Roof?

Under our Roof?

Church halls - whether we wish our church had one or not, if we're responsible for them we will be regularly faced with choices about who can use them and under what conditions. There are a number of things you need to bear in mind but this article focuses on "Can we say 'no' to groups or activities that we're not keen on?  For example, can we refuse to host a Muslim wedding or to allow a gay group to use our premises?"

Can we refuse some groups or activities?

You may have concerns about letting your premises to those whose purposes you're not happy to support because of their ethics, religion, or practice but be unsure about what you can do since the introduction of the Equality Act 2010.   In the language of the Act if you refuse someone access to your building you are discriminating against them.  The language is painful but from a court's point of view the question is whether you are lawfully or unlawfully discriminating.

The Equality Act 2010

Basically, there are a number of clauses and exemptions within the Act that make it lawful for churches to refuse to hire their premises out to advance religious purposes or beliefs other than those they believe in or for entering into or celebrating civil partnerships. However, it is important that you familiarise yourself with the bigger picture before making any statements about this to other parties.

The law is complex in its application so taking legal advice is advisable but there are some key questions you need to ask yourself to make best use of any professional help available:

  • What do you do?  Look not just at what you say you do, but what you actually do as a church on a daily basis.
  • What does the group wanting to rent from you do?  It is important to distinguish between a group of people's lifestyle and the way they describe themselves and the activities they want to carry out in your building.  Discriminating against a gay dance group will be more problematic than refusing access to a gay rights group, for example.
  • Do you do anything which could be considered a commercial activity?  If so you may have difficulties satisfying the exemption.
  • Are you providing services on behalf of a public authority?  If so, you will not be able to discriminate against potential users.
  • Do you need to discriminate to comply with the doctrine of your church or organisation?  If you were challenged in court you would need to have evidence of the doctrine concerned and of how the activity contemplated contravened that doctrine.
  • Do you need to discriminate to avoid conflict with the strongly held religious convictions of a significant number of your church?  Again, you would need to have evidence of the convictions of the church members and the way in which the activity for which your premises are to be used would be contravening this.

If you do refuse a group access to your premises and there is no good and real practical reason for that (e.g. it's already fully booked for the date in question), anyone who considers that you are unlawfully discriminating against them may bring a claim against you.  It will be up to you to prove that you are either not discriminating (i.e. that there really is no space) or that the discrimination is lawful.  Legal battles are expensive, time consuming and emotionally draining.  You are most likely to avoid a court battle by being able to justify your position at the outset. And if it does go to court it's important to be as well prepared as possible.

For further information on the implications of the Equality Act 2010 on the use of your church buildings please visit the Anthony Collins website

Fran Beckett & Sarah Hayes
Anthony Collins Solicitors

The Baptist Union have also issued guidelines for churches on this topic