Provision of goods, services and facilities: Discrimination on grounds of religion or belief

At a glance

  • The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion or belief against a service user by a provider of goods, services or facilities.
  • In Billy Graham Evangelistic Association v Scottish Event Campus Limited, the Glasgow Commercial Court awarded damages of £97,325 for religious discrimination.
  • In 2023, the Stand Comedy Club admitted discriminating against Joanna Cherry MP on grounds of religion or belief when it cancelled a Festival show because of her gender-critical beliefs.

As well as prohibiting discrimination on grounds of religion or belief in the employment sphere, the Equality Act 2010 also prohibits discrimination against a service user by a provider of goods, services or facilities.  Direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, harassment, and victimisation are all prohibited in much the same way as they are in the workplace.

Although not as common as employment disputes,  there have been various high-profile cases where service providers have been accused of religion or belief discrimination.     As well as showing how these issues can arise in a wider business context,  the cases also demonstrate the type of factors which businesses should and should not consider in reaching commercial decisions and when facing pressure from different stakeholders with conflicting views.

The first notable case arose when the SSE Hydro Arena cancelled a performance by Franklin Graham,  an evangelical preacher and son of Billy Graham.  The second came about when the Stand Comedy Club cancelled the appearance of Joanna Cherry MP at an Edinburgh Festival event because of her gender critical beliefs.

Franklin Graham and the SEC

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) hired the SSE Hydro Arena from Scottish Event Campus Limited (SEC) for the “Franklin Graham Event”.  The event, scheduled for 30 May 2020,  was to be a free Christian Evangelical outreach event for over 12,000 members of the general public, presented by Franklin Graham,   a contentious American evangelist.

In the months running up to May 2020,  there was growing opposition to the event including protests on social media, an online petition,  and some mainstream press coverage.     Protesters claimed that Mr Graham might use the event to air controversial views on a variety of subjects.  In late January 2020,  Franklin Graham issued a Facebook post explaining the purpose of and inviting members of the LGBTQ+ community to the event.   Two days later, SEC terminated its agreement with BGEA.

BGEA claimed that SEC had discriminated by terminating the agreement on the basis of a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, namely, religious belief.

SEC maintained that the contract was terminated due to security concerns because of the possibility of protests outside and inside the venue.   However,  minutes disclosed that the SEC board discussed what might be said by Franklin Graham at the event.  In addition, SEC’s principal shareholder, Glasgow City Council, had asked for the event to be cancelled. SEC was also concerned that artists might refuse to play at the venue and because its sponsor considered that the event was not compatible with its values.

A letter from Glasgow City Council to SEC said,  “Glasgow is well known as a city which is friendly to all people, but particularly including from the LGBTQ and Muslim communities.  I do not want to send a message to those communities that the Council prepared to welcome any person who has the potential to make such comments”.

The court decided that by terminating the agreement SEC directly discriminated in that it treated BGEA less favourably than it would have treated others.  It did so because of a protected characteristic, namely, the religious or philosophical beliefs of BGEA and Franklin Graham.  It acted under pressure from others including its shareholder, its sponsor and for commercial considerations.   The court awarded damages of £97,325.32.

Click here for a summary of the Judgment of the Glasgow Commercial Court.

Joanna Cherry and the Stand Comedy Club

Joanna Cherry is the MP for South-West Edinburgh who is understood to hold gender-critical beliefs.   In January 2023,  she was booked to present an “in conversation with” session at a Stand Comedy Club venue during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August 2023.

In April 2023, the Stand Comedy Club issued a press release referring to ‘concerns … raised regarding the ‘In Conversation with Joanna Cherry event’’.  It stated that the Stand –

  • opposes all forms of discrimination including against people on the basis of their gender identity;
  • believes that people should have the right to express views that others might find controversial or strongly disagree with, providing this is done within the law; and
  • would respect the views of staff who had expressed concerns about Joanna Cherry’s views and who did not want to be involved in promoting or staging the show.

Later, in May 2023, the Stand issued a further statement stating that it was no longer possible for it to host the Joanna Cherry event at its venue.    Key operational staff were unwilling to work on the event and, out of respect for their views, the Stand would not compel them to do so.   This meant that the venue was unable to proceed with the event on a “properly staff, safe and legally compliant basis”.

According to newspaper reports, following this statement, Joanna Cherry commenced legal action against the Stand seeking to have the Fringe show reinstated.   The legal opinion of Aidan O’Neill KC that Ms Cherry had been discriminated against by the Stand on grounds of her protected philosophical belief on the issue of gender identity was made publicly available by Ms Cherry.     Subsequently,  the Stand reinstated the ‘In conversation with Joanna Cherry’ event and, in a public statement and legal correspondence,  accepted that its previous decision that the event could not go ahead constituted unlawful discrimination against Ms Cherry.   On this basis, the matter was never considered by the Courts.