Church and former CEO sue charitable trust for religious discrimination

A multimillion pound charitable trust is being sued by its former CEO and a church over alleged anti-religious bias, in separate legal actions supported by The Christian Institute.

Kenneth Ferguson, an elder at Stirling Free Church, had been CEO of The Robertson Trust in Scotland since 2011 but was dismissed in March this year after Chairwoman Shonaig Macpherson objected to his church renting premises owned by the Trust.

His case will be heard by the Glasgow Employment Tribunal from Monday 14 to Thursday 17 December.

‘Ballistic’

The Robertson Trust, was established in 1961 and is the largest independent grant-making trust in Scotland, awarding more than £20 million a year to good causes.

But Chairwoman Macpherson was said to have been “incandescent with anger” last November when she discovered that the church had been allowed to reach a £6,500-a-year agreement with the Trust over the use of The Barracks Conference Centre in Stirling for their Sunday services.

Mr Ferguson said: “I was told by two members of my senior management team, that Shonaig Macpherson went ‘ballistic’ and was almost unable to speak because she was so angry.

“She kept asking why the Trust had rented to the Stirling Free Church. One colleague told me that Shonaig had said ‘definitely not the Free Church, anyone but the Free Church, they don’t believe in same-sex marriage’. They said she was ‘incandescent with anger’. She went on to tell them that the values of the church were not the same as those of the Trust and were not compatible.”

anyone but the Free Church

No policy

Within days, the church was given notice to quit the property, being told their use of it did “not comply with Trust policy”. The Trust claims the policy prevents rentals for activities promoting religion.

The Trust also blamed Mr Ferguson for the agreement being made, despite the CEO and elder declaring his involvement in the church on the Trust’s register of interests and recusing himself from all negotiations about the rental.

He said: “I was extremely familiar with the Trust’s funding policy and in particular the Trust’s policy not to fund any work which promoted religion or was evangelistic in nature. But rental income from hiring out The Barracks was quite obviously not funding.”

“The Trust had a similar building in Glasgow where for the previous five years [it] had been renting space to many hundreds of charities. There was no policy in place as to who could or could not rent.”

Unfair dismissal

The Trust commenced disciplinary proceedings against Ferguson over the church rental but his dismissal letter made no reference to this and instead cited vague ‘performance issues’.

This is despite the former CEO overseeing a doubling of the Trust’s giving, an increase in staffing from seven to 43 during his tenure, and receiving an eight out of ten in his appraisal last year from Macpherson herself.

Ferguson is seeking £74,893.52 in damages, and a declaration that he was unfairly dismissed and discriminated against on the grounds of his religion.

Discrimination

In a separate legal action, Stirling Free Church is seeking £10,000 in damages from the Trust for breach of contract over the use of The Barracks and a further £50,000 damages for discrimination.

The one-year contract between the church and the Trust, signed in June 2019 and commencing when The Barracks opened in November, expressly permitted use of the premises “for public worship and delivery of religious instruction”. But shortly after Shonaig Macpherson expressed her hostility to its beliefs about marriage, the congregation received notice to quit.

The Trust claimed the church’s booking had been in breach of its policy which prevents it from working “with projects and activities which incorporate the promotion of political or religious beliefs”.

Unwritten rules

Despite several requests from the church to see the alleged policy, the Trust failed to provide a copy.

When the church wrote to the Trust’s Head of Finance asking for a copy of any policy documents, he replied:
“We don’t have an explicit policy … but make decisions on a case by case basis with the funding policy regarding ‘projects and activities which incorporate the promotion of political or religious beliefs’ being an example of what we would take into consideration”.

it is unlawful for the providers of venue facilities to discriminate against people because of their religious beliefs

Lawyers for the church say the Trust has discriminated against the church by treating it less favourably than it would treat others on account of their religion or belief. In addition, they say the Trust is in breach of the Equality Act 2010, as it is unlawful for the providers of venue facilities to discriminate against people because of their religious beliefs.

Writing to the Trust’s legal team, they said: “It is clear the funding policy does not apply to the hiring of premises and there is no policy whatsoever for the hiring of the Premises”, adding that the Trust’s decision “has no basis in law when it comes to hiring out premises”.

‘Embarrassed’

Stirling Free Church minister Revd 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.”

The Free Church believes marriage is between a man and a woman

Justice

Kenneth Ferguson and the church are both being supported by The Christian Institute in their legal actions against the Trust.

Simon Calvert, the Institute’s Deputy Director for Public Affairs, said: “Scotland’s biggest grant-making Trust pride themselves on serving the community. But their actions in relation to Kenneth Ferguson and Stirling Free Church suggest somebody there has a problem with people with orthodox religious beliefs.

“They’re trying to claim the rental agreement with the church was against policy when no such policy existed. And they’ve kicked out a much-loved and highly successful CEO while shifting ground on their reasons.

“There’s clearly something going on here and we hope these legal actions will bring it to light and secure justice for the Christians who have lost out as a result.”

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