An evangelical church is accusing Scotland’s largest charitable trust of religious discrimination after it cancelled a rental agreement over the church’s views on same-sex marriage.
Stirling Free Church had a contract to use premises owned by the multimillion pound Robertson Trust for its Sunday services. But when trust chairwoman Shonaig Macpherson learned of the agreement, the contract was terminated. Macpherson reportedly objected to the church’s biblical belief that marriage is between one man and one woman.
Glasgow Sheriff Court is set to hear the case next week.
It is unlawful for providers of venue facilities to discriminate against people because of their religious beliefs. The UK courts say the religious belief that marriage is between a man and a woman is protected under equality and human rights law.
When asked why the contract for the Barracks in Stirling had been terminated, the Trust claimed it had a policy preventing it from letting space for activities promoting religion or politics.
However, when the church wrote to the Trust asking for a copy of the policy, the Head of Finance revealed that no “explicit policy” existed and decisions were made “on a case by case basis”.
Speaking ahead of the hearing, 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 Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) is also challenging the Trust, as it similarly had its contract for a one-off meeting for 100-150 people terminated without explanation.
The BGEA’s Roger Chilvers said it had booked a room at the Barracks for a training course for churches involved in its evangelistic tour of the 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.
“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 recognize the inequities present in this case.”
‘You can’t discriminate’
Simon Calvert, the Institute’s Deputy Director for Public Affairs, said: “Scotland’s biggest grant-making Trust pride themselves on serving the community. But at the heart of the community are lots of religious groups which exist to express their faith. Do they not count?
“It’s quite clear there is some hostility within the Trust towards Christian beliefs about marriage. But these beliefs are protected by equality and human rights law.
“The courts have ruled again and again that you can’t discriminate against people just for believing in traditional marriage.”