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Religious organisation wins County Court ruling over removal by council of adverts on buses

A religious organisation has won a county court case against Blackpool Borough Council and its wholly-owned Blackpool Transport Services, which refused to advertise its rally on the sides of buses.

The 2018 Lancashire Festival of Hope had as its main speaker an American evangelist Franklin Graham.

When advertisements for the event began to appear on buses the council received complaints from the public about Mr Graham’s statements on various controversial issues and removed the advertisements.

Mr Graham, president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, said he was discriminated against by the Blackpool Borough Council and Blackpool Transport Services.

Giving judgment, HHJ Claire Evans said the council and the bus operator breached Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights and discriminated against Mr Graham and the festival in relation to Article 10 rights.

HHJ Evans said Mr Graham’s religious beliefs included: “God’s plan for human sexuality is to be expressed only within the context of marriage [which] is exclusively the union of one genetic male and one genetic female.

She said he was “a controversial figure to many” and noted in the trial bundle material that described him as having a “track record of homophobic and Islamophobic comments”, and having said that that Barack Obama’s “problem is that he was born a Muslim” and that Satan was the architect of same-sex marriage and LGBT rights.

She found that by removing the advertisements the council had been responding to offence expressed by, in particular, members of the LGBTQI+ community and “even though the defendants were partial, I find that they were pursuing the legitimate aim of avoiding offence being caused to others”.

But she found Blackpool Transport Services managing director Jane Cole did not balance “in any way the offence and distress caused to, for example, the LGBT community with that potentially caused to some of the Christian community… I find that she gave no consideration to the proportionality of the measure”.

The judge said: “I remind myself of my finding that the [council and bus operator] in removing the advertisements allied themselves with the views on the religious beliefs which were expressed by the complainants, and against the claimant and those holding the religious beliefs with whom the claimant is associated.

“This is the antithesis of the manner in which a public authority should behave in a democratic society.”

She said the council had the burden of proving that interference with Mr Graham and the festival organisers’ Article 10 rights was justified.

“Taking all of those factors into account, it is my judgment that the balance comes down overwhelmingly in favour of the claimant,” she found.

“Yes, the claimant was still able to advertise its event and yes, it was still a success. “But ‘it turned out all right in the end’ cannot be an answer to the question of whether the interference with a fundamental right to freedom of expression can be justified.”

HHJ Evans said the council and its bus operator “had a wholesale disregard for the right to freedom of expression possessed by the claimant.

“It gave a preference to the rights and opinions of one part of the community without having any regard for the rights of the claimant or those who shared its religious beliefs. It made no effort to consider whether any less intrusive interference than removing the advertisements altogether would meet its legitimate aim.

Mr Graham said: “We thank God for this ruling because it is a win for every Christian in the UK,”

A joint statement by Blackpool Council and Blackpool Transport said: “We take on board the findings addressed within the judgment.

“Our policies and procedures are reviewed on a regular basis to take account of such sensitive issues. In light of the County Court judgment, we will undertake a further review to determine whether any further changes need to be made. 

“We would like to reiterate that Blackpool Council and its arms-length companies remain committed to promoting equality and diversity, eliminating discrimination and increasing respect, tolerance and understanding throughout our community.”

Mark Smulian

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