My local council, Woking, have found themselves in a spot of bother recently. It has emerged that they are subsidising parking charges for specific Christians churches. If you belong to a different church, worship a different god, or just want to go shopping, you have to pay for parking.
The total subsidy was at least £55,864 between 2009 and 2011, and is still rising.
The National Secular Society took issue with this and, unsurprisingly, complained that this was blatant discrimination.
Not everyone agrees; Carl Thomson, one of my local councillors, rather missed the point when he talked about secular intolerance.
I was always disappointed that the threat of legal action had been made and think most people would see that as bullying and intolerant.
The council gives concessions and grants to a range of organisations. The National Secular Society are crying discrimination where none exists.
Secularism means different things to different people. To me it has a simple meaning: the government has no business imposing religious beliefs on its citizens, nor should it restrict the religious beliefs, and no one religion should get special favours.
As a non-religious person, I really don't care how you spend your Sundays (or whichever day is special to you). I shouldn't be able to push my non-belief on you, and you shouldn't try to push your belief on me. We'll then get along fabulously!
But why should Christians get free parking? The assorted Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Mormons, Scientologists, Pastafarians, and Buddhists receive no such special dispensation for parking. Nor do the non-religious.
How We Got In This Mess
This situation has a fairly simple history. I recommend reading the whole report, but here are the highlights.
- Car parking in Woking used to be free on a Sunday.
- The council decided to charge for Sunday parking (Around 2001).
- Churches near the town centre asked the council to subsidise their worshippers (2003).
- The council did so.
- A Freedom of Information request was made which uncovered the subsidy (July / August 2011).
- The National Secular Society raised an official complaint (September 2011).
It seems to me that this is blatant discrimination. No other religions receive special subsidies for car parking.
As well as annoying the non-religious, it's also not a very good solution - especially for disabled church-goers.
The report states:
The EqIA has found that the current practice of allowing worshippers to park free on Sunday’s was implemented as a reactive practice, and did not consider the needs of the wider community. The practice does not impact positively on all churchgoers as it has a negative impact on disabled Woking residents within the faith community who are excluded from its benefits, and on the wider community of residents, including disabled people who are also excluded from its benefits.
What's even more astonishing is that this subsidy isn't needed!
... the vast majority of worshippers stated during the EqIA consultation that a reintroduction of charges would not prevent them from attending the Sunday church service
Even if "vast majority" just means just 51%, that would be a huge reduction in the bill to tax-payers.
At which point, perhaps it would be low enough for the church - or its members - to subsidise the member of its community who cannot afford the parking.
I'm not religious, and I understand why the faithful would think that it's disrespectful of me to compare "free parking for shopping" to "free parking for worship". But not all faiths choose Sunday as their day of observance.
The Muslim members of the Mosque on Portugal Road, close to the Town Centre, pay for on street parking from 12.00noon to 2.30pm on a Friday which is their day of religious observance.
Now, as far as I can tell, there has always been a charge for parking in the week - so this isn't a new form of discrimination against Muslims.
Local Councillor Carl Thomson, quoted in getSurrey said:
The religious community bring so much to Woking and it’s nice for the council to do something for worshippers.
But at no point, as far as I can tell, did Woking Council ever consider subsidising non-Christians - even though it would have an equally beneficial impact on those worshippers.
To quote the full report once again:
At the same time, it was seen as unfair in a multi-cultural society if similar concessions or relaxation of the rules were not also made for faith groups whose day of religious observance was not a Sunday. This is vividly illustrated by the fact that Christ Church, one of the churches that benefits from the free Sunday parking practice is approximately 150 yards from the Portugal Road Mosque.
The report's recommendations are fairly straightforward:
It is recommended that:
1. WBC addresses the current arrangements in relation to disabled people and Sunday parking as a matter of urgency by taking up the issue in relation to the on-street parking bays as a matter of urgency.
2. That WBC continue with the practice of allowing worshippers to park free if the Council is able to determine that it is a 'proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim' and having had proper regard to all of the issues raised in this EqIA.
3. WBC rescind Sunday car parking charges for all visitors to the Town Centre between the hours of 7.00am and 1.00pm.
4. WBC rescind Sunday parking charges for all visitors to Woking town centre on Sundays.
I think that they are missing another, more practical, option. Keep charging for Sunday parking for everyone.
At best, this policy was a well intentioned way to provide financial relief to those unable to pay for car parking. In practice, however, this is a divisive and discriminatory practice which leaves no one particularly satisfied.
I would hope that everyone can agree that preventing disabled people from parking (whether religious or not) is an issue which needs tackling.
So, finally we come to the heart of the matter: is it discrimination to give free parking to a select group of Christians?
As a secularist, I would argue that, yes, it is discrimination.
This can't be solved by giving all other religious people a free car parking pass on their day of worship. On a mercenary level, it would be financially crippling for the tax payers of Woking. On a practical level, how do you prevent people from saying they're worshipping when really they're doing the weekly shop?
Returning to the status quo of free Sunday parking would be a universal benefit - church-goers can worship if they want to, while the rest of us can go shopping, see a play or movie, or use the leisure centre.
But this could be seen to be indirect discrimination. Muslims worship on a Friday and Jews worship on a Saturday - so they are excluded from this benefit.
It would appear, from the report that the introduction of Sunday parking charges had "no impact on the footfall within the Town Centre".
The choice, to me, seems obvious. Sunday charging should remain. If religious institutions (of any flavour) want their worshippers to park for free, they should provide the subsidies themselves.
That way no one religion is favoured and the non-religious aren't subsidising those who don't need the money.
The Councillor's Reaction
I emailed Carl Thomson my concerns and, with his permission, present his reply in full:
Thank you for your email and your messages on Twitter about parking concessions for churchgoers.
I don't believe the current policy is discriminatory since it is not targeted at any particular religion. The legal advice we have received confirms that it is a legitimate aim for the council to support the religious and churchgoing community, in a similar manner to other social, religious and community groups who receive assistance through the award of grants and financial support.
Using your line of thinking, it could be argued that the council is discriminating against young people by giving financial support to the Marjorie Richardson Centre, that assistance to Outline discriminates against those who are not gay or lesbian, that allowing Street Angels to use council facilities discriminates against those who do not go out drinking on a Friday and Saturday night , and that giving a grant to the Pakistani Muslim Welfare Association discriminates against people who are neither Pakistani, Muslim, nor in need of assistance.
The reality is that we all benefit from the rich diversity of communities that exist in Woking and I would see the policy on free town centre parking for churchgoers as part of the broader range of support that the council provides to different people and organisations. I don't believe it causes resentment. Apart from the person who made the original complaint, you are the first person to raise the issue directly with me.
Regarding the National Secular Society, I have no problem with them campaigning to make sure the state does not interfere in matters of conscious or religion. What I take issue with is the threat of legal action to challenge any recognition or support for religious communities. In my view, the actions of the NSS are aimed not at ensuring protection from the state for people of all religions or none, but at removing any assistance given to Christians by local authorities - and it does appear to be mainly Christians that they target. As far as I am concerned, the NSS falls on the wrong side of the divide between legitimate campaigning and bullying.
I hope that answers your questions, although I suspect we may have to agree to disagree, but please feel free to publish this email on your blog.
I completely agree that a diverse community is great for Woking. And I have no issue with supporting specific groups (monetarily or otherwise).
Refusing to fund a group because they were gay would be discrimination. Similarly only offering support to gay groups would also be discrimination. That's what we're seeing here - Woking Council are offering a specific benefit to one group of church-goers and denying it to those of other religions (or none). There is obviously a demand for it and - whether intentional or not - Woking are discriminating.
I'd like to take issue with four of the points which Carl makes.
- "I don't believe the current policy is discriminatory since it is not targeted at any particular religion."
Well, this is simply not the case. Only Christians of a specific denomination can get free carparking on a Sunday.
- "I don't believe it causes resentment."
The report clearly states
... it was seen as unfair in a multi-cultural society if similar concessions or relaxation of the rules were not also made for faith groups whose day of religious observance was not a Sunday.
some residents have expressed their frustration at the practice of allowing Sunday worshippers to park free of charge whatever their income level, whilst other non church going residents, including those who fall within groups with other protected characteristics, cannot benefit from free parking, and are paying substantially increased charges across the board. This is seen as tantamount to being discriminated against on the grounds of having no belief or organised religious belief.
- "What I take issue with is the threat of legal action to challenge any recognition or support for religious communities."
The NSS are concerned that the support is illegal - a view broadly supported by the report. What else can someone do to compel an organisation to follow the law other than threaten legal action? To just say "we think you're breaking the law, but we don't intend to do anything about it," is tantamount to condoning the law breaking.
- "the actions of the NSS are aimed [...] at removing any assistance given to Christians by local authorities - and it does appear to be mainly Christians that they target. "
Christianity is the established religion in this country - naturally they will be the largest target for anyone involved in the cause of disestablishment. But it doesn't take more that a few seconds to see examples of the NSS highlighting the cause of persecuted Christians, sticking up for a Bishop's right to free speech, and siding with Christian bloggers. That's before you get to them taking a stance against ritual slaughter, or forced marriage, or Sharia law.
The Church is going through a painful transition. Its waning influence on UK society and deep internal divisions on equal marriage are causing it to rupture.
Despite this, the Church of England is an incredibly rich institution - with an investment fund of around £5.3 billion.
The Government cannot subsidise people to go to a specific church; so the church should divert a small fraction of its global investments towards local car parking for poor parishioners.
The Full Report
The proposed plan from Woking Borough Council - as reported via getSurrey looks like it just compounds the problem.