It seems the new Test Act is being put to good use. An Elim Pentecostal church in the London borough of Merton has struck a deal with the council for new premises. The Guardian report, ‘the council will fund a church and community hall for Elim in exchange for its existing site which the council needs for a new academy school. The value of the new facilities has been estimated at up to £4m’. This is being deemed a major issue by LGBT+ campaigners, who have now enlisted the help of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (ECHR), on the grounds that the church, according to the paper, ‘believes homosexual sex is wrong and gay marriage “unbiblical”’.
The basis of ECHR involvement is the concern that the church may not permit LGBT+ groups access to their facilities. The Guardian report:
Several London borough of Merton councillors have raised concerns the council is breaching its own equalities protocol by using taxpayers’ money “to promote and enhance a church whose attitudes and beliefs are understandably seen as homophobic by some”.
In a formal submission, three councillors said: “It is feared that LGBT+ residents and community groups risk being prevented from accessing these facilities.”
It bears saying that the church has not said, one way or the other, that LGBT+ groups will necessarily be disbarred. It is entirely possible that policy of, considering ‘bookings “on a case by case basis” and it would “take bookings that did not conflict with the constitution of our charity”’ may allow room for some LGBT+ groups. You may read that as equivocation intended to avoid a more direct and blanket ‘no’. You make up your own mind. A few points seem worth making.
It is troubling that a council decision on renting the building can be shut down by particular political views. It would be interesting to know, for example, whether an LGBT+ group allowed to use the building would rent their premises to an Evangelical Elim Pentecostal church to meet in their building? If not, why should the Pentecostals permit them room to propagate their political views when the favour is clearly not returned in respect of the church’s religious ones? If the church is not to be tolerated on the ground that they are (potentially) not inclusive, how is it any more inclusive to essentially determine that those with Elim Pentecostal views cannot be included?
Second, it bears recognising precisely why the council have struck the deal. The Guardian report, ‘the council will fund a church and community hall for Elim in exchange for its existing site which the council needs for a new academy school’. Notice the significant clause, the council want the church’s existing site in order to build a school. Quite rightly, the council have not just commandeered the church building in some sort of Mugabe-style property grab. Instead, the council have agreed to fund the church’s new building on the grounds that they are obliged to pay them if they want their property.
If as campaigners seem to be asking the council do not do this, there are one of two possible outcomes. Either the school that the council need in the location of the church will not be built at all or the council put a compulsory purchase order on the building and be forced to pay the church a potentially higher rate for their building than allowing them the use of an existing site that can be renovated will do. For the church and the council, the deal struck would appear to be mutually beneficial and the most cost-effective option. That is unless campaigners are suggesting that the government simply appropriate the church’s building simply because they don’t like their views. But they wouldn’t be arguing for that dangerous precedent, would they?
Finally, it seems worth asking what the outraged campaigners would like the Elim church to do? It is quite clear they don’t seem to like the fact that council money is going to be spent on funding a building for these people. But what exactly do they think should happen here? Are they suggesting the council build the school in a less appropriate area to avoid funding the Pentecostals? Maybe they want the building seized without costs because they propagate the wrong views? Surely they don’t think the Pentecostals shouldn’t be permitted to worship anywhere because they don’t share their theological perspective? It is entirely unclear, other than telling the council not to spend money on the church that must be spent if, indeed, they want the site on which the church property currently stands, exactly what they want to happen here?
The wider issue of concern here is that any deviance from cultural orthodoxy will be met with furious, if somewhat incoherent, protest. Speech may be free but apparently not free of consequences, for which read it will not be free of punishment, which is just another way of saying your speech will be coerced. What is more, if you believe or think the wrong things, you shall be dealt with appropriately. In this case, it seems, ‘wrong’ belief means confiscation of your property and/or no right to practice your faith.
There may be a case for allowing them to use this particular building or not. There may be a case for granting them another site or not. But I struggle to see how you can legitimately complain that a site you want, owned by someone else, will cost you money just because you don’t like their particular views. That, dear friends, cannot be right. It is yet another example of the rampant intolerance that marks the right-on tolerance fascists who, in the name of tolerance and inclusion, seem utterly unwilling to tolerate or include any with whom they disagree.