Your church building is a great asset and a valuable resource. It enables your church family to meet on Sundays and other groups to meet in the week. It may be a means of reaching out to your community and caring for those in need. Sometimes, a church building can be used to generate income for the church because someone would like to hire a room for an event; or the church may own other residential buildings that it would like to rent out. Stewarding these resources well to spread the gospel and in faithfulness to Christ, is a key strategic question for all churches.
How do you decide what your property should be used for? When can you let other people use it? Is it true that you cannot discriminate in who you let it to?
Your charitable purposes
As charities, churches must comply with charity law and, therefore, need to refer to the charitable purposes set out in their governing documents when dealing with their property to ensure that the buildings are only used in a way that either directly or indirectly furthers the church’s charitable purposes. If you are thinking about renting out your property or letting a third party use it for an event, you must check whether this is in line with your purposes as a charity. The trustees are responsible for making sure this happens.
Equality Act 2010 Obligations
Churches are sometimes concerned that equality legislation means that they have to let their building to whoever asks to use it, even if the group carries out activities which contravene what the church believes or teaches. While we want to be welcoming to our neighbours, there are some important exemptions under the Equality Act which can help churches.
How can we say no?
The exemptions under the Equality Act provide churches with some protection, but they are likely to be interpreted narrowly by the courts if ever a dispute arises, particularly if your purposes are worded broadly and you are happy in principle to rent out your buildings to non-Christians in order to raise income. To help here, you should make sure that you have clear doctrinal or ethos statements which address the basis on which you are happy to let out your premises. A church will be entitled to refuse a hiring request where the proposed hiring activity would actively undermine your purposes or contravene your doctrines and beliefs. For instance, you may decide that you do not want your property to be used for the active promotion of non-Christian faiths or for the promotion of same-sex marriages.
You are much more likely to face a legal claim under the Act, however, if you refuse to hire out the church’s premises purely on the basis of the personal characteristics of the person making a request (e.g. simply because the person belongs to another faith, or because they are in a same-sex relationship). If you generally allow members of the public to hire the church hall for birthday parties, for example, it is extremely difficult to see how you can refuse to let a particular individual hire the hall for a birthday party because of their personal lifestyle or beliefs. A refusal on that basis will almost certainly amount to unlawful discrimination.
You will need to think carefully in advance about how you apply these principles consistently. In addition to reviewing the church’s statements of doctrine and ethos, it may well make sense for the trustees to develop a hiring policy, setting out the decision-making process for requests as they arise.
Our Head of Charities, Caroline Eade, has written a joint briefing paper with the Church Growth Trust entitled ‘Hiring church premises and the Equality Act 2010’ which discusses this issue in greater depth. You can access it by clicking on the link below.
This information has been provided by solicitors working for Edward Connor Solicitors. It is designed for the purpose of knowledge sharing only and does not constitute legal advice.