Le­gal ac­tion fears as plug pulled on £200k ren­o­va­tion

Belfast Telegraph - - NEWS - BY DONNA DEENEY

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.

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