Free Parking for the Religious in This British Town, but Atheists Are Out of Luck

If you ever happen to find yourself in Woking, Surrey, a large British town of some 100,000 people, you might be entitled to free Sunday parking in local municipal garages. But there’s a catch: the offer is valid only if you’re religious.

In that case, local churches or mosques will validate your parking stub. So count your blessings… and your savings! Woking subsidizes “religious” parking to the tune of £41,000 ($64,000) a year.

Ray Morgan, Woking council’s chief executive, believes people shouldn’t 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.”

His view seems to be that being a worshipper “encourages one to participate in society.”

Got that, non-superstitious people? From the town council’s perspective, your godless contributions to society are as good as meaningless. Whether you’re an atheist businesswoman creating jobs with solid working (woking?) wages, or the agnostic organizer of a shelter for the homeless, or maybe just a freethinker tourist enriching the local pubs and oriental restaurants (sample Woking’s wokking scene!), no free parking for you.

Britain’s National Secular Society (NSS) thinks that isn’t right and is taking legal actionKeith Porteous Wood, executive director of the group, told the BBC what bothers him:

“We have launched this challenge to preferential treatment of worshippers because it’s neither legitimate nor lawful for local government to subsidize 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.

In the U.S., with its particular Constitution and the prominence enjoyed by the First Amendment, a suit over government benefits going exclusively to religious believers would probably be a slam dunk. (On second thought, we could talk tax exemptions and I’d be eating crow. Hmm…)

I don’t profess to know what the NSS suit’s chances are across the pond, but the fairness principle should hold sway with any reasonable magistrate.

Let’s not forget that the U.K. is one of the most secular places on the planet. Fully 42 percent of Britons are agnostics or atheists. Only 12 percent frequently go to church. It’s borderline aggravating when non-churchy citizens are publicly pooh-poohed and marginalized by the likes of Ray Morgan, but it surely crosses some line when, after Hizzoner is done talking shit about them, he hits them in the pocketbook to raise money for his favored minority.

I’m glad the NSS is telling Morgan where to park his prejudice.


***Update*** Other cities in the U.K., including Canterbury and Leeds, also discriminate against non-religious parkers, and Edinburgh is under pressure from Christians lobbying hard for the same sorry practice.

(image via Overcoming Bias)

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder and Main Mischief Maker of Moral Compass, a site that pokes fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards.

  • LesterBallard

    I’m think I might be doing some keying of the cars of the religious, since I’m such a piece of shit anyway.

  • allein

    So if someone doesn’t have a car and takes the bus to get to church, do they get free bus fare, too?

  • Richard Wade

    You don’t want to key any cars. You want to go home and rethink your life.

  • Adrian

    Oh please, public transport is the work of the devil. You Communist.

  • Dower_House

    It will be interesting to see on what grounds they go to court! UK is
    so hugely different to USA on Church-State separation. There isn’t any!

    Queen is the head of the Church of England, and about twenty C of E
    Bishops sit, as of right, in the upper house, the House of Lords (which
    remains unelected). Often the Chief Rabbi and other senior Churchmen
    such as the Moderator of the Methodists are given a title so that they
    can also sist in the House of Lords. It is all an anachronism, but no
    one cares much if you are atheist or religious over here. Certainly
    atheists are not thought to be evil and to be atheist really carries no

    Recent figures show that only 2% of the population got to
    Church of England services each Sunday, rising to only 5% for Christmas
    and Easter – This does not in include catholics and other protestant
    groups – total regular Churchgoing only is about 15%, but it is thought
    that many people are ‘de-Churched’ – that is they still believe but do
    not go to Church (33%). Figures also vary from survey to survey.

    I suspect that many so called ‘de-churched’ if questioned fully would
    in fact be better labelled as Deists or agnostics.

  • Carmelita Spats

    I’m way, way, way worse than you…I called Mother Teresa the “Hag O’ Christ” and a “malevolent dwarf” in Catholic school which was not a good idea. Keying cars is not a good idea. You can be evil, devious, vengeful, spiteful, but in a hilarious, crafty and cunning way. Take refuge in your wits. Use your wits, you’ve got ‘em. Yes, frustration sets in but it tends to bring out the worst in whoever is frustrated. Frustrated babies tend to throw food and make a mess. Frustrated citizens tend to execute kings and queens and make a democracy. Frustrated moths tend to bang up against light bulbs and make the light fixtures all dusty. But unlike babies, citizens and moths, Fundamngelicals are quite unpleasant to begin with. I get that. However, keying cars is not a solution. ;-)

  • Carmelita Spats

    I wish the religious would take this advice. It’s exactly how I became an ex-Christian.

  • midnight rambler

    In that case, local churches or mosques will validate your parking stub.

    Not a mosque (what would people be doing there on a Sunday anyway?), and only three particular churches. From the BBC:

    Worshippers at Coign Church, Christ Church and Trinity Methodist Church insert tickets into a “validating device” at their churches, which encodes the tickets so that they raise the exit barrier without needing to pay.

  • LesterBallard

    I can still sell you the death sticks, though, right?

  • suicideluvkitty

    how are you gonna tell which of the cars in any of the parking garages belong to the religious?

  • Terry Firma

    Yeah, I just pulled that out of my ass, as I usually do when I write these things.

    Oh, wait, no I didn’t. Whew. BBC news program,, listen to the voiceover at 0:29. Exempted from parking fees are those who attend “Sunday services OR FRIDAY PRAYERS AT THE MOSQUE.”

    Hope that helps.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Ooh, a “special role in society.” Gotta love that Christian humility.

  • LesterBallard

    How are they gonna know so the discounts can be given? Plus, Jesus fish, various bumper stickers, things like that?

  • Richard Wade

    Sure, but I think you should give atheists a discount because we have a special role in society. ;)

  • midnight rambler

    So why are you so snippy when you cited an article that didn’t say that but not this video? Because yeah, it does sound like you pulled it out of your ass.

  • DougI

    The religious do perform a special role in society. Nobody leeches off the taxpayer quite the way a religious person does. Sounds like every one of these towns needs an Atheist church. If that happens, and Atheists get free parking they may just end up abolishing the program. Nothing causes fundies to scream persecution more than others getting equality.

  • Pseudonym

    So let me play “principle of charity” for a moment here.

    If I’m understanding UK politics, part of the context is that the government is scaling back government services in the name of “austerity”. The alternative is something called “the big society”. This is basically a codename for “do it yourself”.

    I don’t actually have a problem with the government not charging groups who are taking up the slack. The local government in Woking has identified religious groups as doing some of that. Note that in a town of 62,000 (with 30% or so declaring themselves to be non-religious), there are probably only a handful of religious organisations. It’s possible that at the time of writing, the local government knows that they are all pitching in, and that there are no non-religious organisations pitching in.

    I don’t know that this is the case, but in a modest-sized town, it may be possible that it’s true and the local government knows this.

    Assuming that all this is the case, the alternative to using religion as a proxy for “big society” groups is to set up a scheme by which organisations can be independently identified as such. This means an additional layer of bureaucracy, which is exactly what the “big society” was supposed to avoid.

    In this context, the “special role in society” rhetoric actually makes a certain amount of sense. It’s possible that in Woking, religion does play a special role in society.

    Of course, even if all of the above is true, there clearly are a lot of problems with this. One aspect of the “big society” things is to recognise the work of individuals. Individual disability carers, for example, don’t get a benefit under this scheme (though of course they should get a government for their work anyway).

    Nonetheless, it seems to me that the scheme isn’t sinister, it’s just half-arsed. The local government needed to soothe its conscience for having to cut back on services, and did it in the least-effort way possible, and now it’s backfiring.

  • Terry Firma

    You could just say that you were wrong with your “correction” and leave it that. That would have saved a little face, maybe.

  • suicideluvkitty

    the churches are validating the parking tickets….. there’s movie theaters that do that to offer free parking for their customers who park in the nearby parking garage… but i see what you mean with the self identification.

  • wmdkitty

    Look at that — you can be eloquent and forceful without cursing!

    I’m giving ya shit, yeah, but seriously, your comment was awesome.

  • Graham Martin-Royle

    Equality Act 2010 would be a good starting point. It is illegal to discriminate over certain “protected characteristics”, one of which is religion. Non religion must be treated the same way according to the act as religion.

  • Graham Martin-Royle

    Thing is, the only thing that is actually being subsidised is going to a church service (or a mosque service on Fridays, thanks Terry Firma) and praying. These people aren’t in the process of actually doing anything for anyone other than themselves.

  • Pseudonym

    That’s not quite true. If you stay on for lunch, that’s subsidised too. But point taken.

    I’m just trying to examine why someone with good motives might want to institute a rule like this. Austerity was explicitly mentioned.

  • Rain

    ”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.”

    If they are the only ones standing there doing social care on the lower level, then maybe they deserve to have free parking. Maybe if people didn’t park on the upper levels then maybe they would have free parking too.

  • Ewan

    It’s just a cover story. Really, of all the things a council might reasonably do in response to ‘austerity’, handing over forty-odd grand to your mates isn’t high on the list.

  • flyb

    Midnight was not wrong based on what you originally wrote and the BBC links you originally supplied. A mosque is not mentioned at all; not until your youtube link here in the comments. You did get quite defensive with the “pull it out of my ass” comment. As a professional journalist, you could have provided a simple, “Oops, here’s the youtube link I meant to include that mentions mosques and Fridays.” And perhaps even edited the text to state, “entitled to free Friday and Sunday parking.”

  • The Other Weirdo

    To die horribly during the next God-sponsored and Christian-hoped-for Apocalypse?

  • The Other Weirdo

    Of course keying cars is a solution. It’s just not a good solution.

  • Terry Firma

    My sense of humor isn’t for everyone. Sorry I forgot to include the link to the video. Midnight Rambler’s correction was still no correction at all, as there was no error to begin with, and he was simply wrong. In my profession, making a factual mistake is kind of a big deal. If I think I spotted one in a colleague’s prose, I’ll make damn sure that I’m right before I publicly air the accusation. In this case, 30 seconds on Google was all it would have taken MR prevent this whole unnecessary exchange. Moving on.

  • allein

    In all seriousness, if that’s their justification, wouldn’t it make more sense to give free parking to those who are parking in order to do some sort of volunteer/charity work? If they’re going to the church to work in a soup kitchen, sure, let them park for free. But just going to attend services shouldn’t get you free parking.

  • Gus Snarp

    So people who come in to work, earning income and paying tax on that income while producing the economy that’s taxed in general: pay for parking. People who come in to spend money, which is taxed and creates the jobs those workers do: pay for parking. People who come to sit in a church, maybe drop a few coins in the collection plate, untaxed: FREE PARKING!

    Great, they’re giving an incentive to the activity that doesn’t support the local economy, while forcing those who are driving economic activity and tax receipts to pay for fewer available spots. Good economic strategy in times of austerity.

  • GodlessPoutine

    This sort of thing is going on here in Montreal and also, apparently, in Toronto and Vancouver. But only around synagogues, afaik.

    My thoughts on this are here, if you don’t mind me dropping a link:

  • Matt Davis

    I’m pretty sure this is illegal. The European Convention on Human Rights prohibits discrimination based on religious beliefs, so this would never hold up in court. I’m glad to see the NSS is taking action; this should be straightforward! Here in England, hardly anyone is religious. Atheism, or irreligion at the least, is the norm, pretty much.