Church leaders in Northern Ireland, in a series of open letters, have warned that the Charity Commission’s draft guidance could threaten the charitable status of churches.
The Charity Commission for Northern Ireland (CCNI) is due to publish its final ‘public benefit’ guidance soon, having consulted on a draft version of the text.
The draft was widely criticised, and many Christian leaders remain concerned that the CCNI has gone beyond its remit and endangered the charitable status of churches.
The Commission’s draft guidance indicated that the charitable status of churches and Christian charities could be threatened if their membership rules were not “sufficiently open”.
But Reverend William Park, writing on behalf of the Fellowship of Independent Methodist Churches, has attacked the proposal.
“Surely churches must be free to admit into membership only those whose beliefs and behaviour are consistent with the Bible’s teaching? Their charitable status should not be jeopardised because of long-established terms of membership”, Revd Park warned in an open letter to the Belfast Telegraph earlier this week.
He added: “This subjective terminology threatens the status of churches whose terms of membership are deemed to be insufficiently open by the new commissioners.”
The draft document also said that the CCNI will consider public opinion when ruling on whether churches are of “public benefit”.
But critics warn that churches should not be left exposed to the changing whims of public opinion.
Reverend Professor David McKay, in a seperate letter to the Belfast Telegraph, said: “Public opinion is a shifting thing. The status of churches should not be called into question because their foundational doctrines have fallen out of favour with a numerical majority.
“We have asked the Charity Commission to remove this ‘popularity test’ from its revised and final guidance.”
The draft guidance – which failed to make clear that it was not a statement of the law – also introduced bureaucratic requirements and tests unrelated to charity legislation.
Earlier this year politicians also expressed concern that the CCNI was attempting to go beyond its remit.
Nigel Dodds MP MLA said: “The draft guidance is not a statement of law, but the Charity Commission needs to make this clear so that trustees and others involved in running charities are not misled as to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.”
And 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.”
In April it was revealed that the Christian Institute had written to the CCNI, giving notice of the Institute’s intention to challenge the guidance in the courts if the problems were not addressed.
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.”