Churches and Christian charities across Northern Ireland could be plunged into worry and confusion unless draft guidance from the charity regulator is changed.
The Charity Commission for Northern Ireland is due to publish its ‘public benefit’ guidance soon, having consulted on a draft version.
Church leaders and politicians have today raised concerns that, in the draft guidance, the Commission is stepping beyond its remit and leaving churches in doubt over their charitable status.
The Christian Institute has written to the Commission, giving notice of the Institute’s intention to challenge the guidance in the courts if the problems are not addressed.
The problems include leaving churches in doubt of their charitable status, even though they have been deemed to be charities for hundreds of years.
The draft guidance – which fails to make clear it is not a statement of the law – also introduces bureaucratic requirements and tests unrelated to charity legislation.
The Commission fails to state that charities may hold strong opposing views on controversial topics without fear of deregistration.
And the draft document says the Commission may use public opinion when weighing up ‘public benefit’. Critics say Christianity is not a popularity contest and charitable status shouldn’t be either.
The Commission also says it may interfere in the membership rules of churches and Christian charities if membership is not “sufficiently open”.
Nigel Dodds MP MLA said: “The draft guidance is not a statement of law, but the Charity Commission needs to make this clear so that trustees and others involved in running charities are not misled as to the legal tests that apply to charitable bodies.
“There are serious concerns that the Commission may be exceeding its remit set out in the 2008 Charities Act.”
Danny Kennedy MLA, Deputy Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, said: “Freedom of religion and freedom of speech are essential components of a healthy democracy.
“Churches and religious bodies are involved in campaign work and public debate on a wide range of issues, including the promotion of fair trade and social justice, the alleviation of third world debt, human trafficking, and abortion.
“Politicians and governmental agencies alike should continue to recognise the significant contribution and public benefit which churches and religious charities provide in Northern Ireland.”
Revd Dr Harry Uprichard, former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, and Minister of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Ahoghill, Co Antrim, said: “Churches have operated as charities for centuries. The Charity Commission’s draft guidance casts their charitable status into doubt.
“The Christian faith and Bible teaching are concerned with what is timeless and should not be subject to tests based on public opinion or current trends in thinking.”
Pastor Eric McComb, Superintendent of the Elim Church in Ireland, said: “It is vital to religious liberty that churches are free to choose their own membership according to their own membership rules.
“There are serious concerns in the draft guidance that the Charity Commission may adjudicate on the membership policies of churches and Christian organisations.”
Sam Webster, Solicitor-Advocate at The Christian Institute, said: “We believe that churches and Christian charities could be put at risk of deregistration over matters which are wholly unjust.
“This was never the intention of the Assembly. We raised our concerns with the Commission during the consultation process but they have not yet been adequately addressed.”