Churches in Northern Ireland look set to be in a safer position thanks to a decision from the Northern Ireland Executive to change charity law.
The Executive has said it wants the law to clearly state that religious charities, which include churches, are presumed to provide public benefit.
Controversial draft guidance from the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland (CCNI) on the current law will have to be rewritten as a result.
There had been concerns that the CCNI had gone beyond its remit and that its guidance endangered the charitable status of churches.
But now the Executive, which is made up of 13 senior ministers in the NI Assembly, has asked civil servants to draft new legislation to amend the Charities Act (Northern Ireland) 2008.
Also, as part of the changes, the public benefit test in the Act will now follow the English model rather than the more intrusive Scottish approach.
Both proposals need to be approved by the Assembly before it is dissolved in late March.
Many politicians and Christian leaders have expressed concerns about the CCNI draft guidance.
Last year Nigel Dodds MP MLA said: “The draft guidance is not a statement of law, but the Charity Commission needs to make this clear so that trustees and others involved in running charities are not misled as to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.”
He said: “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 The Charity Commission’s draft guidance casts their charitable status into doubt.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.”