Legal action fears as plug pulled on £200k renovation
A COUNCIL’S decision to withdraw £200,000 of funding to a Tyrone church because it refused to sign an agreement containing an equality clause could lead to legal action, it has been claimed.
Sixmilecross Presbyterian Church had applied for and been granted the funding, which was part of a £1.25m rural development package, to renovate a former manse once home to the Ulster Scot poet WF Marshall.
But the process hit difficulties after church elders refused to sign Fermanagh and Omagh District Council’s development agreement, which included an equality clause that would give access to all local groups, including those whose ethos would be contrary to that of the Presbyterian Church. Ulster Unionist councillor Bert Wilson cited this week’s Supreme Court ruling on Ashers Bakery, which said Christian bakers were within their rights to refuse to bake a cake with a gay rights message as it was contrary to their religious beliefs.
He said the same principles could apply in the case of Sixmilecross church: “I fully support the church’s application for the renovation project and I was deeply disappointed by the council’s decision to withdraw the £200,000 because the church was honest and upfront about not signing the development agreement. If they had, this could have left them in a difficult position where the church would have had to allow a group whose beliefs were contrary to theirs to use the building.”
Mr Wilson said he intends to pursue the matter with the coun-
Concerns: Councillor Bert Wilson
cil, adding: “The Supreme Court ruled this week that organisations are entitled to hold religious beliefs and they should not have to compromise those beliefs for a differing organisation.
“I will raise this at the full council meeting and ask council officers to explore if the withdrawal of funding to the Presbyterian church could leave the council open to a legal challenge.
“I think the whole issue of development agreements and this particular clause needs to be looked at very carefully because I believe there are other groups who have signed it but would refuse access if tested.”
Sinn Fein councillor Debbie Coyle, who is chair of the regeneration and community committee, said she didn’t think there were grounds for a challenge.
She added: “The church wasn’t willing to comply with all sections of equality legislation including Section 75, the proposal was to withdraw the money because it is a community project and nobody could be excluded.
“It was proposed, seconded and everyone agreed and I don’t think this leaves the council open to any possible legal challenge.
“My understanding is that the church was given a standard draft of the development agreement including the equality clause because the building was being changed into a community building for everyone in the community, regardless.
“I know the church was willing for the building to be used by the community so long as the group did not run contrary to the teachings of the Presbyterian church.
“From a council point of view, we can’t fund projects where one section of the community or group is going to be excluded and I think that is completely different from the Supreme Court ruling.”
No one was available from the Presbyterian Church or the council for comment when contacted.