In Lancashire Festival of Hope with Franklin Graham Limited v Blackpool Borough Council & Anor  Manchester Cty Ct F00MA124, the Court was asked, in effect, to rule on whether or not a charitable limited company could be regarded as having “human rights” for the purposes of anti-discrimination legislation and the ECHR.
The Lancashire Festival of Hope with Franklin Graham Limited (LFH), a private limited company and a registered charity, was set up to organise the Lancashire Festival of Hope, which was held at the Blackpool Winter Gardens in September 2018 . Franklin Graham, an American evangelist with controversial views, spoke at the Festival on each day . In the spring of 2018, LFH had contracted with the Second Defendant, Blackpool Transport Services Ltd (through its agent Exterion Media Ltd) to display banner advertisements on its buses from 2 to 29 July 2018. The advertisements read “Lancashire Festival of Hope with Franklin Graham – Time for Hope” and gave the date and venue of the Festival and the URL for the Festival’s website. They contained no overtly religious wording nor imagery . After complaints from members of the public about the advertisements, they were removed from the buses .
LFH claimed that it had been discriminated against on grounds of religion and belief by the removal of the advertisements. It alleged that the decision to remove them was made by both Defendants and claimed breaches of the Equality Act 2010 and violation of its Convention rights under Articles 9 and 10 ECHR, taken with Article 14 . LFH argued that the decision to remove the advertisements from the buses had discriminated directly against it on grounds of religion and belief in that they treated LFH less favourably than others in materially the same or similar circumstances; alternatively, the Defendants had discriminated against LFH indirectly in applying a policy of “no political or religious advertising on the buses” .
In relation to the Human Rights Act, LFH argued both Defendants were public authorities (or if the Second Defendant was not, it was engaged in functions of a public nature when providing public transport services and/or advertising on public transport service), that as a religious body it had rights under Article 9 and that the removal of the advertisements without justification had discriminated against it, contrary to Article 9 and 10 ECHR .
The Defendants argued that LFH was not a religious organisation for the purposes of the Equality Act or Article 9 and that LFH itself and could not be said to have a religion. The advertisements had been removed because Blackpool Transport Services Ltd had a policy prohibiting religious advertising and a policy of neutrality – with which the advertisements were inconsistent. The advertisements had caused offence to members of the public because of the reference to Franklin Graham, given his expressed views on homosexuality, same-sex marriage and Islam, and buses displaying the advertisements might become a target for vandalism. They had been removed because of their content and their actual and anticipated effect and they would have been removed whatever the characteristics of the person seeking to display them. Furthermore, the comparators identified by LFH were unsuitable. As to indirect discrimination, the advertising policy would not have had a differential effect – but if it had done so, it was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim .
In relation to the Human Rights Act, the Defendants argued that Blackpool Transport Services Ltd was not a public authority and was not exercising any public function when accepting or removing the advertisements, that LFH could not bring a claim pursuant to Article 9 because it was a limited company and, in any case, any interference with Article 9 or 10 rights had been justified.
HHJ Claire Evans noted that it was “the very unacceptability to some sectors of society of Franklin Graham’s particular religious beliefs” that was the alleged basis for the discrimination. To take into account in considering the requirement under s.23 Equality Act 2010 for a suitable comparator against which the Court could conclude that the alleged discrimination had occurred went to the heart of the protected characteristic and could not be right:
“It would be approaching the issue in a way which would defeat the purpose of the legislation to eliminate discrimination on the ground of a particular religion or belief .
Further, it would require the Court to involve itself in the relative acceptability to society of the perceived offensiveness of one religious view over another, and the role of the Court was not “to enquire into the validity of differing religious views or to give preference to some over others. All religions and beliefs are characteristics protected by law” .
As to whether or not Blackpool Transport Services Ltd was a public authority, HHJ Evans held that it was: it had been created by the Council to meet its statutory responsibilities under the Transport Act and was It is wholly owned and controlled by the Council  – but if she was wrong about that, she held that, in entering into contracts for advertising on its buses, Blackpool Transport Services Ltd was engaging in a function of a public nature .
Though she preferred to consider her decision with reference to Article 10, HHJ Evans ruled as follows on whether or not LFH, as a limited company, could have rights under Article 9:
“160. Its charitable purposes are set out in Article 2.1 as ‘the advancement of the Christian Religion in the Lancashire area by sharing the good news of Jesus Christ’.
161. I can see no good reason for distinguishing between the Claimant and a Church, or an association with religious and philosophical objects, simply on the basis that the legal vehicle for its actions is a limited company rather than an unincorporated association pursuing its charitable objectives via, for example, a charitable trust. It has no purpose or powers according to its Articles of Association other than religious ones.
162. Accordingly, insofar as it matters I find that the Claimant does itself possess Article 9 rights.“
As to the Article 10 issue, she accepted that the Defendants were pursuing the legitimate aim of avoiding offence being caused to others . However:
“The Defendants had a wholesale disregard for the right to freedom of expression possessed by the Claimant. It gave a preference to the rights and opinions of one part of the community without having any regard for the rights of the Claimant or those who shared its religious beliefs. It made no effort to consider whether any less intrusive interference than removing the advertisements altogether would meet its legitimate aim. Whilst, of course, the Defendants are to be afforded a margin of appreciation in considering any interference under Article 10, all of those factors taken together mean in my judgment that its actions fell well outside it” .
The Defendants had therefore breached Article 14 and had discriminated against LFH on the ground of religion in relation to its Article 10 rights .