Surrey

Free church parking in Woking dubbed discrimination

Free Sunday parking for some churchgoers in Woking has been dubbed "discrimination" in a legal challenge.

Woking Borough Council allows worshippers at three churches in the town free use of its public car parks.

The National Secular Society said this was direct discrimination and has launched legal action.

The council defended the decision saying the policy applied to all faiths as they "encourage people to participate in society".

Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said: "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."

'Pay to pray'

In 2011 the council took legal advice on the policy, which advised that although it amounted to "indirect discrimination" it could be justified on the basis that it was a "proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim".

The cost to the council of providing the free car parking was estimated to be £41,000 in 2012.

Ray Morgan, who is the council's chief executive, said people should not have to "pay to pray".

"We take a view that those people who worship... have a special role in our society," he said.

"The way austerity is going in our society, faith groups might be the only people left standing who are doing any of the lower level social care."

Worshippers at Coign Church, Christ Church and Trinity Methodist Church use a "validating device" to mark car park tickets without needing to pay.

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