Church free parking challenged by atheists

parking ticket machine

The National Secular Society is taking Woking Council to court: challenging its policy of allowing church-goers to be exempt from paying to park in town on a Sunday morning.

So why is it doing this, and what does this mean for you?


The anomaly came about when some councils started introducing Sunday parking charges. Those who attend churches with no car parks responded in anger, claiming it was a 'tax on worship'. The councils responded by enabling people to have parking permits validated in church, which means that those who are definitely attending church do not have to pay for their parking.

Woking Council provided ticket validating machines to three churches in the town: the Anglican Christ Church, evangelical Coign Church and Trinity Methodist Church. Church-goers simply validate their tickets at church and do not have to pay. Woking United Reform Church, meanwhile, gives out council-backed parking permits to churchgoers valid between 9.30am and 1pm on Sundays.


The NSS argues that this discriminates against non-worshipers, who believe their reasons for having to be in town on a Sunday are every bit as valid as those attending church. It has decided to bring a test case against Woking Council in the name of Keith Porteus Wood, executive director of the NSS, who paid £3 to park in Woking on Sunday 14 April.

The society's lawyers, Leigh Day, say that by exempting church-goers from rules that apply to everyone else, the council is discriminating, and is in breach of the Equality Act of 2010. It is taking action to force the council to either remove the exemption or make all parking in the town free on Sunday mornings.

Richard Stein, Human Rights Partner at Leigh Day, said in a statement: "Providing relief for parking charges to those going to church on a Sunday but not to those going shopping or to socialise with family or friends is unjustifiable. It is clear discrimination and we are calling on the Council to decide whether to allow everyone to park for free or to charge all equally."

The group claims that the scheme costs tax-payers £50,000 a year, and benefits a small segment of society. Wood said in a statement: "The equal treatment of all, regardless of belief or non-belief, is a key secular principle. We have launched this challenge to preferential treatment of worshippers because it is neither legitimate nor lawful for local government to subsidise the activities of any particular religion and belief group. It would be fairer if the Council either charged worshippers for parking, as they do everyone else, or provided free parking for all."

Woking's view, meanwhile, was made clear in a policy statement, which said: "Places of worship, and the faith communities that they serve, play an important role, both in society in general and Woking in particular. They encourage people to participate in society, thereby promoting social inclusion."

What it means for you

This is not a one-off challenge. A number of councils have this sort of scheme in operation, including those in Richmond, Ealing and Hampshire, and the NSS has said this is a test case. If it proves successful, they will move to have exemptions removed for churches across the country.

The impact on you will depend partly on how councils decide to resolve the issue. If they scrap charges for everyone, then the whole town can benefit.

However, there's a good chance that the councils will just remove the exemption, on the grounds it helps them make money. Newcastle City Council, for example, has scrapped its exemption for churches, arguing that it was in the interests of fairness - although of course the extra income (estimated at £25,000 a year) won't go amiss either.

If this is the case, church-goers will be out of pocket, everyone else will be no worse or better off, and the councils will have found yet another way to make money from motorists.

10 consumer rights you should know
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Church free parking challenged by atheists

The law states that any goods you buy from a UK retailer should be of satisfactory quality, as described, fit for purpose and last a reasonable amount of time.

This applies even if you buy items in a sale or with a discount voucher. You may have to insist on these rights being respected, though.

Useful phrases to use when you want to show you mean business include, "according to the Sale of Goods Act 1979" and, if it's a service, "according to the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982".

Some shops will allow you to exchange goods without a receipt, but they can refuse to should they wish.

If the goods are faulty, however, another proof of purchase such as a bank statement should work just as well.

If you attempt to return goods within four weeks of the purchase, your chances of getting a full refund are much higher as you can argue that you have not "accepted" them.

After this point, you can only really expect an exchange, repair or part-refund.

The updated Consumer Credit Act states that card companies are jointly and severally liable for credit card purchases of between £100 and £60,260 (whether or not you paid just a deposit or the whole amount on your card).

Anyone spending between these amounts on their credit card is therefore protected if the retailer or service provider goes bust, their online shopping never arrives or the items in question are faulty or not as described.

Start by writing to the agency asking it to either remove or change the entry that you think is wrong. It will investigate the matter and find out whether you have been the victim of ID theft or a bank's mistake.

Within 28 days from receipt of your letter the agency should tell you how the bank has responded. If the bank agrees to change the entry, they will authorise the agency to update their records. They should also send updates to any other credit reference agencies they use.

You can also contact your lender directly to query a mistake. If the lender agrees to the discrepancy, ask them to confirm this in writing on their letterhead and send a copy to the agency, asking them to update your file.

The FOS settles disputes between financial companies such as banks and consumers.

If a financial organisation rejects a complaint you make about its services, you can therefore escalate that complaint to the FOS - as long as you have given the company in question at least eight weeks to respond.

The FOS will then investigate the case, and could force the company to offer you compensation should it see fit.

Bailiffs are allowed to take some of your belongings to sell on to cover certain debts, including unpaid Council Tax and parking fines.

They can, for example, take so-called luxury items such as TVs or games consoles. However, they cannot take essentials such as fridges or clothes.

What's more, they can only generally enter your home to take your stuff if you leave a door or window open or invite them in.

You are therefore within your rights to refuse them access and to ask for related documents such as proof of their identity. If they try to force their way in, you can also call the police to stop them.

Private sector debt collectors do not have the same powers as bailiffs, whatever they tell you.

They cannot, for example, enter your home and take your possessions in lieu of payment.

In fact, they can only write, phone, or visit your home to talk to you about paying back the debt. As with bailiffs, you can also call the police if you feel physically threatened.

Thanks to the Distance Selling Regulations, you actually have more rights buying online or by phone than on the High Street.

You can, for example, send most goods back within a week, for a full refund (including outward delivery costs), even if there's no fault.

You will usually need to pay for the return delivery, though. The seller must then refund you within 30 days.

We enter into contracts all the time, whether it be to join a gym, switch energy supplier or take out a loan.

In most cases, once you've signed a contract, you are legally bound by it. In some situations, however, you have the right to cancel it within a certain timeframe.

Credit agreements, for example, can be cancelled within 14 days. And online retailers must tell you about your cancellation rights for any contract made up to stand up legally.


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