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22 November 2012

Charitable Status Under Threat?

Charitable Status Under Threat?

On 13 November, a packed Westminster Hall debated the question of charitable registration for the Plymouth Brethren [1].

The Charity Commission without warning, according to the Brethren, controversially rejected the application for charitable status of one of their meeting halls in Devon, the Preston Down Trust. This particular church has now become a test case for the 16,000 strong UK movement as a whole. Having enjoyed charitable status for many years prior to the 2006 Charities Act, the recent rejection is seen as a revocation of charitable status with a threat of wider implications for other churches and religious groups. The Charity Commission has been widely criticised for exceeding its powers and accused of adopting a prejudiced, hostile attitude towards certain Christian groups. Many MPs are concerned about the situation and in the debate were united in their strong support for the Plymouth Brethren, even calling on the government to investigate the so-called independence and neutrality of the Charity Commission.

This in fact represents a complex legal dispute which will now almost certainly have to be settled at a special charities tribunal.

In a nutshell, the 2006 Charities Act removed the historic presumption of public benefit for certain types of charity – such as religion. In itself this was not contentious because most people accept that churches and others should have to demonstrate they are of benefit to the public to gain charitable status. The government assured the churches in 2006 that in practice this would be no more onerous than it was before the Act. When the Act was passed the Charity Commission consulted at length with churches before issuing clear guidance based on interpreting and implementing the Act. Most religious groups were quite content with the outcome. Attempts by elements hostile to religion to make charitable status dependent on complete acceptance of secular equalities agendas without exceptions were comprehensively defeated.

The Charity Commission is supposed to interpret the Act and not to make law. It is a regulator not a law creator. The Plymouth Brethren fell foul of the Commission when they attempted to demonstrate their public benefit under the new Act. A crucial point in this context concerns the extent to which churches and religious groups are considered to be accessible to the public and the extent to which they contribute to society. Although the 2006 Act does not define public benefit in favour of practical flexibility, elements at the Commission apparently decided that the Brethren kept too much to themselves, their meetings were not sufficiently open to the public, and the public were not allowed to partake in communion.

All these accusations have been clearly rebuffed by the Brethren who certainly have restrictions concerning access, but it would appear these are not out of line with many other religious groups. Notices outside Brethren meeting halls clearly advertise public meeting times and indicate how to contact church leaders. They have issued detailed brochures describing their wide-ranging public activities.

None of this has persuaded the Charity Commission who apparently adopted a negative legal approach to the Brethren and declined constructive dialogue. They have summarily advised the Brethren that the issue must be decided at a legal Charity Tribunal because they say the law relating to public benefit has to be clarified. However, the Commission will not refer the case themselves. This means the Brethren has to bear the immense legal costs of justifying their own previously unquestioned charitable status following a seriously dubious decision by the Charity Commission who are unwilling to bear the costs themselves.

Sadly, and probably unnecessarily, the dispute looks likely to have to be settled in a very expensive legal process probably ending up in the High Court. Many lawyers believe that the Charity Commission has not learnt from getting things wrong in their recent lost battle with independent schools. The Commission asserts – as it did in the schools case - that the 2006 Charities Act overturned previous case law including a landmark High Court judgement in 1981 which established the long-held charitable status of Brethren meeting halls beyond doubt. However, this assertion appears to be incorrect as the 2006 Act affirms that it specifically incorporated and did not abrogate previous case law. This is likely to be a key point upon which the case will turn and why the Charity Commission is being accused of exceeding its powers in seeking to create new law, as well as being wrong in its reading of the law.

Whatever opinion one may hold of different types of church, the church as a whole has a vital interest in a positive outcome of the case. Otherwise, there could be serious implications for all kinds of religious groups, especially those who are community based or who restrict public access to some of their services.

   Photo Credit: Tagishsimon via Creative Commons

[1] The Plymouth Brethren derive from the followers of James Taylor Snr and James Taylor Jnr in the 20th century. They are to be distinguished from both other branches of the so-called Exclusive Brethren and the Open Brethren. The latter diverged from the Exclusive Brethren as early as 1848, and now have some 25,000 congregations worldwide, assembling Sunday by Sunday some 2.5 million people. Many UK churches connected with the Open Brethren are members of the Evangelical Alliance. These churches have had no difficulty in registering their charities with the Charity Commission.