Glasgow sheriff orders SSE Hydro operators to pay nearly £100,000 to organisers of cancelled evangelical Christian event

Glasgow sheriff orders SSE Hydro operators to pay nearly £100,000 to organisers of cancelled evangelical Christian event

A Glasgow sheriff has ordered the operators of the SSE Hydro Arena to pay nearly £100,000 to an American religious charity after finding it had no defence for cancelling an event involving a controversial religious speaker.

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which arranged with Scottish Event Campus Ltd to host an event involving evangelist Franklin Graham in 2019, argued that. The defender, 90 per cent of the shares of which are owned by Glasgow City Council.

The case was heard by Sheriff John McCormick, with Aidan O’Neill KC and David Welsh appearing for the pursuer and Roddy Dunlop KC, Dean of Faculty, J McGregor KC and V Arnott appearing for the defender.

True reason

On or around 31 July 2019 the parties entered into a contract for the hire of the Hydro Arena for an event scheduled for 30 May 2020, for the sum of £50,000. Although the event was described as a private event, it was known to and agreed by the defender that it would be a non-ticketed event open to members of the public. Mr Graham, the son of evangelical preacher Billy Graham, was due to give a keynote at the address.

In November 2019 the defender became aware of opposition to the event, particularly by the LGBTQ+ and Muslim communities, which appeared in the mainstream press as well as by social media, petition, and email. A decision to terminate was taken by the defender’s CEO in January 2020 with support from the board of directors. By letter dated 29 January 2020, the defender informed the pursuer that it in breach of a contractual obligation not to act in any way reasonably likely to bring SEC into disrepute.

Counsel for the pursuer submitted that the defender had treated it less favourably than others due to a religious belief, in this case evangelical Christianity, and therefore was in breach of the Equality Act 2010 in terminating the agreement. The provided reason in the letter of January 2020 was not the true reason for the cancellation of the event, even if it may have had a bearing on the decision. The defender had been unable to prove that the decision to cancel had nothing to do with a protected characteristic and therefore the court was obliged to find in the pursuer’s favour.

It was noted that, although the event would have been cancelled regardless because of Covid-19, the perceived wrong had taken place before the outbreak of the pandemic, and as such its effect was not considered in detail by the sheriff.

No business defence

In a preface to his decision, Sheriff McCormick noted: “The court was told, in terms, that it is no part of the defender’s case that the activities of the pursuer were unlawful. The event on 30 May 2020 was a Christian evangelical outreach event. Whether others agree with, disagree with or even, as was submitted on behalf of the pursuer, find abhorrent the opinions of the pursuer or Franklin Graham is not relevant for the purposes of this decision.”

Evaluating the true reason for the cancellation, he said: “At proof there remained a divergence of views as to who made the decision to terminate the agreement and when. There was a tendency to talk up the security issue while ignoring the wealth of evidence concerning the true reasons – the supposed views of Franklin Graham, what would or might be said at the event, pressure from the major shareholder and the reactions of others.”

He continued: “Briefly put, if it is correct that the event was evangelistic, based on religion or philosophical belief, then it follows that the decision to cancel was a breach of the Equality Act 2010 in that the event was cancelled as a commercial response to the views of objectors. In law there is no business case defence. Accordingly, on this basis alone the defender breached the terms of section 29(2) of the Act by terminating the provision of the service to the pursuer.”

The sheriff concluded: “If my analysis of the law and of the remedies is correct, to an errant defender intent on flouting the terms of the Equality Act 2010 there is, in Scotland, little disincentive where a defender is prepared to accept a reputational hit and reimburse a corporate pursuer for losses sustained. Indeed, a defender might think that there is a business case to do just that. The expense of reimbursement to one customer may be outweighed by the prospect of future trade with others. That may be the unintended consequence of this decision where, as here, a pursuer is a charity. Here the remedy does not fit the wrong especially where, as I have concluded, an order for rescheduling is unworkable. Courts in other jurisdictions may have greater latitude in encouraging compliance.”

Damages were assessed at £97,325.52, including the deposit fee for the venue, various rental costs, catering costs, and staff salaries.

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