The charities regulator for England and Wales has today published new guidance which it will use to assess the charitable status of religious groups, including churches.
Following a consultation on draft guidance held earlier this year, the Charity Commission has addressed several concerns raised by Christian groups.
There are many welcome developments, but The Christian Institute’s preliminary view is that concerns remain.
We do not think that churches will face any difficulties complying with the law.
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The Commission claims that religious charities must demonstrate their public benefit. The Commission will be applying an ‘activities test’ which includes assessing benefit versus detriment. This remains a key aspect of the final guidance.
However, according to some leading experts in Charity Law the Commission has misinterpreted the new Charities Act. These experts say that under the Act ‘public benefit’ should have the meaning developed by English case law, which does not include an activities test.
Legal experts who have challenged the Commission’s interpretation of the law or believe it has failed to give proper weight to religious freedom include:
In the former draft guidance the Commission suggested that it may regulate viewpoints based on the Bible.
It said advancing religion does not necessarily mean “advancing a particular viewpoint which is held by a religious person or which perhaps refers to extracts from religious texts which serve to promote that viewpoint.”
But that sentence does not appear in the final document published today.
Previously the Commission said that seeking converts might be considered part of advancing religion. But the final guidance puts it more positively, properly recognising that evangelism is a core activity of many religious groups.
In a welcome improvement the guidance now says, “In some religions proselytising is seen as an essential part of the outworking of the religion. For example, Christians regard evangelising as a central part of their religion.”
The Commission rightly notes that some methods of proselytism would not benefit the public, such as using undue psychological pressure, threats of violence or promises of material gain.
We still have concerns about the Commission’s approach to charities which have the sole purpose of seeking to convert people from one religion to another.
Formerly, the Commission said public opinion would help guide assessment of whether a religious charity benefits the public. Christian groups said religion is not a popularity contest and charitable status should not be either.
The wording on public opinion is now more qualified in the final guidance. It now says, “charitable status is not decided on the basis of public opinion. However, we would have regard to public opinion where there are objective and informed public concerns about, or evidence that, the beliefs or practices of an organisation advancing religion causes detriment or harm.”
The final guidance continues to imply that the Commission can make judgements about the correct interpretation of religious doctrine and practice.
It says, “In some cases detriment or harm might arise not from general concerns about the nature of the religion, but from the abuse or misuse of religious teachings due to misinterpretation, misapplication or perversion of some of the narratives and/or doctrines and teachings of the religion. In other cases, detriment or harm might arise as a result of the way in which a particular religion is practised.”
However, it has added wording thought to be aimed at combating vexatious complaints to the Commission about religious charities. It says, “there must be objective and informed evidence of detriment or harm; they cannot just be claimed.”
It also says “Unevidenced claims made with the intention of causing an organisation trouble because of a disagreement with the organisation’s views or stance will not be taken into consideration. All claims of detriment or harm would have to be fully substantiated.”
The draft guidance warned about charities that confined themselves to promoting one or two tenets of a religion. We were concerned that Christian ministries providing services on particular issues, such as pro-life issues or homosexual issues could have fallen foul of this provision.
But the final guidance says, “Provided the purpose is not so narrow as to produce either insufficient public benefit or have little consideration for the broader teachings of the religion, this should not affect the organisation’s charitable status.”
The former draft guidance said that promoting ‘hatred’ would be considered a detriment and may result in a religious charity being deregistered by the Commission.
Whilst Christian groups would never support the promotion of hatred, they were concerned that the Commission’s wording on ‘hatred’ was so loose that disagreement about moral conduct could be labelled by opponents as ‘hatred’.
The wording on hatred remains loose in the final guidance. However, it also makes clear that “General disagreement with the beliefs, activities or practices of a particular religion does not constitute evidence of the existence of detriment or harm.”
The guidance also accepts that different charities may take conflicting positions on moral views.
The draft guidance stated that opposing homosexual relationships would “not necessarily mean that public benefit is not satisfied”. Many drew the implication the Commission didn’t want charities to oppose homosexual practice. This section has been deleted from the final guidance.
In the draft guidance it appeared to suggest that the Commission was setting itself up to regulate membership criteria of religious organisations, including churches.
In a positive development, the section on membership criteria has been removed from the final published guidance.