Franklin Graham’s British bus signs seemed innocuous. They said, “Lancashire Festival of Hope with Franklin Graham—Time for Hope.”
But the message, the messenger, and his history of controversial statements about homosexuality sent the seaside resort town of Blackpool into turmoil in 2018, as elected officials and administrators rushed to find a way to remove the advertisements from public transportation.
“Clearly this chap cannot be allowed a stage to promote this venom,” wrote one city official an email to the council. Another called the evangelist and the president of Samaritan’s Purse a “bile spewing preacher.” A third official didn’t know who Graham was, but looked him up on the internet and said she was “a bit shocked” at things Graham had said about LGBT people on Fox News.
The town removed the Festival of Hope signs just 24 hours after they went up on city buses, citing “heightened tension” and complaints from local residents.
Now, more than two years later, a British court has ruled that was an act of religious discrimination. Graham’s name and record of controversial statements might be offensive to some in Blackpool, according to Judge Claire Evans, but the town was wrong to censor him. The bus sign was protected by the British Equality Act of 2010 and the European Convention on Human Rights.
“All religions and beliefs are characteristics protected by law,” Evans wrote in a 35-page decision handed down last week. “The domestic courts and the European Court of Human Rights have consistently affirmed that a pluralistic tolerant society allows for the expression of many different and sometimes diametrically opposed beliefs.”
According to the judge, Blackpool exhibited “a wholesale disregard for the right to freedom of expression” and “gave preference to the rights and opinions of one part of the community,” while disregarding the rights of festival organizers and the British Christians who agree with Graham.
James Barrett, chairman of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association board, praised the ruling and called it a rebuke to cancel culture in the UK.
“It is a significant day for religious liberty and freedom of speech,” he said. “The court clearly affirmed that Christians and other people of faith who publicly express traditional religious views about marriage and human sexuality are protected by law.”
More than 9,000 people heard Graham speak at the Festival of Hope, despite the lack of bus ads. The event was supported by about 200 area churches.
Blackpool and its public transportation company defended themselves against religious discrimination claims with several arguments in court last month.
First, they said there was a rule against all political and religious ads, regardless of specific content. The court rejected this claim, pointing out that though there is such a rule on the books, Graham’s ad was accepted at first and Blackpool officials never referenced the written policy in their discussions about removing Graham’s ad. Official correspondence indicates the town normally does allow political advertising.
Second, the town said the decision was made to protect city property, since the bus signs could become targets for vandalism and graffiti. The records didn’t show any actual threats of vandalism, though. Instead, the town officials seem to have invented the concern as a plausible legal argument after they decided to reject the ads because of Graham’s positions on LGBT issues.
“The posters are not offensive and they advertise what is the reality in that the conference is taking place,” one transportation administrator wrote to the town’s legal counsel. “I am of the mind to remove the posters because from what I see our buses could become the target of people taking revenge.”
The legal counsel replied that “I think your approach of removing the adverts to ensure that we do not have the buses becoming a target for the argument is a strong one and does not seek to take sides but is a practical response to a potential problem.”
Council leader Simon Blackburn was not so cautious about taking sides, though. The Labour Party member insisted the town fly the rainbow flag when Graham arrived in Blackpool. He said “it’s obviously just the right thing to do,” and communicated official solidarity with the LGBT community.
Blackpool’s lawyers’ third argument was that the town was not removing the advertisements because of their religious content, but because the public would be offended by the ad.
The judge said this argument would “would be to give free rein to discrimination.” Minorities—whether religious, racial, or sexual—only need legal protections of their civil rights and their access to public spaces when they are considered offensive. The Equality Act and other anti-discrimination laws were designed to protect people when their presence in the public square disliked by a majority of the public.
While the town was “trying to distance itself from controversy and public opprobrium,” Evans wrote, that “is not the same as operating a policy of neutrality.” She found the town’s religious discrimination was explicit and stated clearly in internal discussions about the bus ads.
British buses in other towns have drawn attention for displaying ads for other faith efforts, including Islamic Relief’s Ramadan campaign in 2016 and a national “Atheist Bus Campaign” in 2008. Earlier this year, a leftist political faction in Germany spoke out against Bible verse advertisements in public transportation there, saying they make riders feel uncomfortable.
The court will now consider financial damages and rule on what Blackpool owes festival organizers.
Blackpool, for its part, told the BBC it would review changes to the advertising policy on public transportation, but the resort town remains committed “to promoting equality and diversity, eliminating discrimination and increasing respect, tolerance, and understanding throughout our community.”