Billy Graham’s US evangelical group and Free Church of Scotland congregation sue whisky giant’s multi-million pound trust fund over breach of contract and religious bias
A celebrated US evangelical group and a Free Church of Scotland congregation are suing the country’s biggest independent grant-making trust over breach of contract and religious bias allegations.
The Robertson Trust is being sued by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and Stirling Free Church (SFC) after their contracts to use Trust property for meetings were cancelled.
The multimillion-pound charitable Trust was sued last year by its own CEO over religious discrimination claims. Glasgow Sheriff’s Court will hear the new claims at a three-day hearing starting on 19 April.
The BGEA exists to support the evangelistic ministry of Franklin Graham. His late father Billy Graham was awarded an honorary knighthood by the Queen in 2001.
The BGEA was recently involved in a successful claim for discrimination against Blackpool Council in connection with their Lancashire Festival of Hope. (Click here for details.)
The claims being heard next week in Glasgow centre on the actions of the Trust’s chair, Shonaig Macpherson, former head of one of the country’s best-known law firms.
The dispute involves contracts to hire Trust premises known as The Barracks Conference Centre in Stirling. The Trust agreed to allow SFC to use the premises for its Sunday services. The contract expressly permitted use of the premises “for public worship and delivery of religious instruction”.
The BGEA booked a one-off meeting at The Barracks for 100-150 people followed by tea and coffee.
In both cases the contracts were unexpectedly axed.
Shonaig Macpherson – formerly Senior Partner of McGrigors Solicitors – is said to have become ‘incandescent‘ on learning that SFC was paying to use the Barracks during a visit in November 2019. Exchanges with other trustees show she was hostile to the church’s belief that marriage is between a man and a woman.
Within days, SFC was given notice terminating their contract. Initially no reason was given. In February 2020 the BGEA received the same notice. When asked, the Trust claimed it had a policy preventing it from renting space to activities promoting religion or politics. The church wrote to the Trust’s Head of Finance asking for a copy of the policy. He replied:
“We don’t have an explicit policy which states who we will and won’t hire our buildings to, 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”.
The Trust changed its trust deed, purporting to ban renting to religious and political groups in July 2020 – after SFC and the BGEA began legal action.
SFC and the BGEA lodged writs at Glasgow Sheriff Court, seeking damages for breach of contract and discrimination.
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. This was the case in the recent successful litigation against Blackpool Council, which blocked adverts for a BGEA event. The court ruled emphatically that the local authority had discriminated against them and breached their human rights.
It rejected Blackpool’s claim that it had a policy of not taking religious and political ads. It said the Council’s actions were “the antithesis of the manner in which a public authority should behave in a democratic society”.
Speaking in advance of next week’s 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.”
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 recognize the inequities present in this case.”
SFC and the BGEA are represented by one of Scotland’s foremost equality and human rights QCs, Aidan O’Neill, who successfully persuaded the Supreme Court to declare the Scottish Government’s Named Person scheme unlawful. O’Neill was also involved in the successful claim against Blackpool Council.
Both claims are being supported by The Christian Institute. 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.”
BACKGROUND NOTES FOR EDITORS
Kenneth Ferguson, the former CEO of The Robertson Trust, is suing for unfair dismissal and religious discrimination. His case is part-heard and will resume in May. Click here for more information.
THE ROBERTSON TRUST
The Robertson Trust is “currently the largest independent grant-making trust in Scotland. Inspired by the example of its founders, the Robertson Sisters, it has a vision for a fair and compassionate Scotland where everyone is valued and able to flourish”.
N.B. The legal actions are being brought against “Kintail Trustees Limited as a trustee of the Robertson Trust”. Kintail Trustees Ltd is the only trustee of The Robertson Trust.
Ms Macpherson was well-known throughout Scotland before becoming chair of the Trust, serving in numerous commercial and third sector roles. The Times described her in 2009 as “formidable” with a “reputation for ruthless efficiency”. She resigned in 2010 as Chair of the National Trust for Scotland after a tenure variously described as ‘eventful’, ‘troubled’ and ‘turbulent’. In 2017 the Robertson Trust issued the following statement welcoming her as chair:
“Since retiring as Senior Partner of McGrigors Solicitors in 2004, where she was responsible for the firm’s strategy as well as leading one of the UK’s leading intellectual property teams, Ms Macpherson has undertaken senior appointments across a range of sectors. She is currently Chairman of the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company and a board member of Euan’s Guide, [Futurelearn] Limited and the Dunedin Consort.
“Past appointments, meanwhile, include Chairman of The National Trust for Scotland, The Prince’s Scottish Youth Business Trust, Scottish Council for Development and Industry, the Scottish Council Foundation and ITI Scotland Limited and Vice Chairman of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo Limited. Ms Macpherson has also served on the Governing Bodies of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh College of Art, the Open University, The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Heriot Watt University.
“In 2001, Ms Macpherson was appointed as the first ever non-executive appointee to the Management and Strategic Boards of Scottish Government and became the first lay person to chair the Audit Committee of the Scottish Government. She was a member of the UK Government and Scottish Parliament’s Commission on Scottish Devolution, the Scottish Executive’s Culture Commission and the Knowledge Economy Task Force. Ms Macpherson also became a member of the Joint Management Board of the Scotland Office and the Office of the Advocate General in 2015.”
 The Times online, 18 January 2009, see https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/shonaig-macpherson-waking-up-a-sleeping-giant-xxc670w0t3j as at 13 May 2020
 ‘Shonaig Macpherson to quit National Trust for Scotland’, Third Sector, 1 September 2009, see https://www.thirdsector.co.uk/shonaig-macpherson-quit-national-trust-scotland/governance/article/930850 as at 13 May 2020; Harris, G, ‘NTS chairwoman urged to step down immediately’, Museums Journal, 109(10), October 2009, page 9.
 ‘Shonaig Macpherson appointed new Chairman of The Robertson Trust’, The Robertson Trust, November 2017, see https://www.therobertsontrust.org.uk/news/shonaig-macpherson-appointed-new-chairman-of-the-robertson-trust as at 13 May 2020