Can a religious group discriminate when hiring its premises?

On 26 September the Daily Telegraph reported that St Edmund’s Roman Catholic Church in Southampton had cancelled a booking for yoga classes in its church hall on the grounds that yoga was a Hindu religious activity. The local priest, Fr John Chandler, said that the hall had to be used for Roman Catholic activities and he had banned the class because it was advertised as for ”spiritual yoga”. His argument was that yoga was a Hindu spiritual exercise and that to have allowed the classes to proceed would have meant that a different religious practice would have been taking place in a Roman Catholic church. A spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portsmouth told the Telegraph that

“It’s not possible for Catholic premises to be used for non-Christian activities and there is a dilemma with yoga as it can be seen as Hindu meditation or as relaxation. There is no national policy on this and the decision is for each priest.”

The extent to which one can refuse to let religious premises to users of a different denomination or faith is a fairly knotty problem which the Digitalnun has discussed at some length  – nor is it a problem peculiarly for Roman Catholics. The Model Trust Deeds set out in The Constitutional  Practice and  Discipline of  the Methodist  Church, for example, provide what would appear to be only a fairly limited authority for non-Methodist worship in Methodist churches, presumably in the context of Local Ecumenical Partnerships:

14 Religious worship. (1) The managing trustees shall permit such services and meetings for religious worship to be held in any place of worship at such times in such manner and to be officiated at by such presbyter or such other person as shall be required or permitted by Methodist practice and by the provisions of this paragraph.

(2) Notwithstanding that any of the members of any communion or body hereinafter mentioned may not subscribe to the doctrinal standards, the managing trustees may with the consent of such person or persons as the Conference may by Standing Order prescribe –

(a) hold, and permit the participation by members of the Church together with any members of any other Christian communion or body in, any occasional joint service or meeting in a place of worship or on any other premises comprised in the property;

(b) permit any member of any such communion or body to officiate and to preach at any such joint service or meeting.”

Similarly, as my co-blogger David Pocklington notes in a comment on the iBenedictines blog, the Church of England has guidelines about dialogue with other faiths and “new religious movements” which include guidance on “what to do if a group wants to use your church or church hall”. It poses the question:

“Exactly what will the group be doing in the church or church hall? For example, if it is a ‘yoga’ group, is it just an exercise class or are aspects of spiritual teaching involved? Sometimes people have gone along to exercise or therapy groups in church premises only to find they are asked to do something which conflicts, or is incompatible with, their Christian faith”.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission points out in its guidance on Exceptions: charities and religion or belief organisations (published by the EHRC as commentary on the Equality Act 2010) that religious acts of worship are not covered by equality law at all – and presumably the question as to whether or not a yoga session is a meeting in some sense “for religious worship” must therefore be a matter for the judgment of the responsible persons – the trustees, or the incumbent – in the individual case.

Presumably, also, whether or not a religious organisation A can refuse to let its premises to another religious organisation B for purposes other than religious worship (however defined) and do so within the law depends at least in part on the basis of any other letting agreements that organisation A may have previously concluded.

The EHRC Guidance states that:

“Religion or belief organisations can, in certain circumstances, discriminate because of some protected characteristics in the way they operate. Unlike charities, they do not need a charitable instrument or to meet particular tests to be able to restrict their services.

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

because of a person’s religion or belief or their sexual orientation”.

Furthermore:

“In relation to a service user’s (or would-be service user’s) religion or belief, 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.

For example, if either of these conditions is met, a religion or belief organisation can ask people to sign up to a statement of beliefs in order to become a member.

Or it could say that no activities related to other religions or beliefs should take place in the building it uses (provided it does not normally hire out its premises for payment, in which case it could not discriminate)” [emphasis added].

Comment: The last point is crucial: what the Commission seems to be saying is that if a Christian church refused to accommodate (say) a Buddhist meditation group on grounds of doctrinal incompatibility, it could only do so if it extended hospitality to external users generally either gratis or for only a nominal payment – unless it could argue successfully that Buddhist meditation was “worship” and therefore outside the scope of the 2010 Act altogether. In the Commission’s view, however, as a matter of principle a church that hires out its premises commercially is obliged to accept all-comers, like it or not.

So far as we are aware, this point has not yet been tested in the courts – but if it were, the outcome would be by no means a foregone conclusion.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Can a religious group discriminate when hiring its premises?" in Law & Religion UK, 29 September 2012, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2012/09/29/can-a-religious-group-discriminate-when-hiring-its-premises/

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