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UK News

Scottish church and Billy Graham organisation take legal action after conference centre cancels bookings

by Marcus Jones

Legal action is being taken against the owners of a conference centre in Scotland which has cancelled the bookings of a local church and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA).

The Robertson Trust who own the venue is being accused of religious discrimination due to claims bosses cancelled because of the groups' beliefs that marriage should be for one man and one woman.

The case regarding the Barracks Conference Centre in Stirling will be heard at Glasgow Sherriff's Court next week.

Stirling Free Church claims it was given permission to use the premises for Sunday services with their contract permitting "public worship and delivery of religious instruction". 

The BGEA booked a one-off meeting at The Barracks for 100-150 people.

Both bookings were later axed.

The two parties claim that a change of leadership led to the cancellation which they say is unlawful.

Speaking in advance of next week's hearing, Stirling Free Church minister Rev Iain Macaskill said: "We are a thriving church that welcomes all people and preaches the gospel of Jesus Christ. We were shocked to be told we could no longer use the Barracks for our Sunday services. We had negotiated with the Trust in good faith and their contract expressly refers to us using the premises for religious worship. 

"The Free Church believes marriage is between a man and a woman - a mainstream Christian belief shared with the Church of Scotland and the Church of England. 

"We had no problems with Trust staff during our negotiations. The staff seemed embarrassed when they had to tell us they were terminating our arrangement. We have had no other option but to resort to legal action."

Roger Chilvers of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, said: "The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association booked a room at the Barracks for a training course for churches involved in our outreach programme, the Graham Tour UK. We made it clear to the venue at the time of booking that we are a Christian organisation. It was only later that they came back and said they were cancelling our booking because of our religion.

"If the Barracks was a religion or belief organisation, the law would allow it to be selective in not hiring out its premises to groups that don't share its beliefs. But the Barracks is not a religion or belief organisation. It is a neutral space, offered to the public at large. You can't have a situation where religious groups are banned from hiring neutral spaces. That is not a free society.

"This is anti-religious discrimination, plain and simple, and we are hopeful the court will uphold our claim and recognise the inequities present in this case."

The church and BGEA are being supported by the Christian Institute.

Speaking to Premier, its deputy director for public affairs Simon Calvert explained the importance of the case.

He said: "If it becomes the case that churches and Christian organisations can't hire what you might call neutral premises - that's very serious.  

"How many of our churches meet in community centres and local authority premises? If they could all just decide 'No, we're not going to have anybody in here that's promoting their religion, that would greatly hinder the ability of, of churches to meet. 

"If you are holding yourself out to be neutral but you are, in fact, discriminating against religious organisations, that's not acceptable."

Responding to claims by the Free Church of Scotland at Stirling and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association Limited that the Trust discriminated against them on grounds of their religious beliefs, Gerry McLaughlin, Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees, said: “The claim that The Robertson Trust would discriminate against anyone based on religion or for any other reason, is completely unfounded. 
“The decision to cancel the hire of The Barracks Conference Centre by the Free Church of Scotland at Stirling and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, was based entirely on our policy which states that we do not fund or support projects and activities which incorporate the promotion of political or religious beliefs. This has been the case for decades. 
“On discovering the breach to our policy, the Trustees took immediate action to cancel the booking and reimburse the heavily subsidised charity rates that had been offered in error to the Free Church of Scotland at Stirling and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. 
“While we do not fund or support the promotion of any particular religious or political beliefs, the Robertson Trust is proud of its work with faith-based organisations, with whom we work closely to address the issues of poverty and trauma in communities across Scotland.  
“In the last six years, the Trust has funded over 130 religious organisations for their inclusive community projects where promotion of religious beliefs or worship was not core to delivery, providing over £2.5 million.” 

The case comes in the same month in which another freedom of religion ruling was given, this time in Blackpool.

Organisers of the Lancashire Festival of Hope took legal action against the local council after they were banned from running bus adverts for the event.

Blackpool Transport took action after complaints over the festival's speaker Franklin Graham, who critics have accused of being anti-gay.

The judge at Manchester County Court ruled in favour of the festival claiming that the Blackpool Transport gave a preference to the rights and opinions of one part of the community without having any regard for the rights of the festival or those who shared its religious beliefs.

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