New charity laws could disadvantage religious groups, MPs tell Government
MPs have urged the Government to protect religious groups from the new Charities Bill. The Bill removes the presumption that religious groups are for the ‘public benefit’. Under the Bill, churches and other religious groups will have to pass a ‘public benefit’ test before they can be registered charities. In theory there should be no problem for ordinary churches becoming charities. The concern is that politically-correct values could be used to define ‘public benefit’. This could cause difficulties for cross-cultural missionary organisations or groups which hold traditional Christian beliefs on marriage or medical ethics.
During the Final Stages of the Bill in the Commons, Ann Widdecombe MP tabled an amendment that retained the current law which presumes that religious charities are for the public benefit. Despite the support of 163 MPs the amendment was not carried, but it led to an excellent debate which aired the main concerns of Christian charities. Andrew Turner, Conservative Charities spokesman, strongly supported the amendment. The Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats opposed the amendment, preferring the new arrangements brought about by the Charities Bill. The Liberal Democrat spokesman did express concern that the Charity Commission has gone beyond the law in some of its statements. (House of Commons, Hansard, 25 October 2006, col. 1598).
Miss Widdecombe said the presumption that religious groups were for the public benefit had served the country well. She also expressed her alarm at recent statements by the Charity Commission, which has said that in future the public benefit test will be assessed in the light of “modern society”. In response the Government minister promised that the Bill “is not intended to lead to a narrowing down of the range of religious activities that are considered charitable.” He also made clear that a religious charity would not be disqualified for its beliefs about sexual morality. (col. 1608)
Andrew Selous MP asked the Government to put on record that proselytism (seeking the conversion of people from one religion to another) will still be deemed a public benefit. The Cabinet Office Minister Hilary Armstrong replied: “It certainly will; my understanding, based on my discussions with the Charity Commission, is that it has no problem with that at all.” (col. 1617)
Colin Hart, Director of The Christian Institute, said, “We were delighted that Ann Widdecombe’s amendment led to a two hour Commons debate. It provided an excellent opportunity to raise concerns with Government Ministers. 163 MPs voted to keep the present law for religious charities. This impressive level of support, together with the positive statements made by Government ministers during the debate, will be helpful to safeguard religious freedom in the future. Christians need to be vigilant that the assurances of Government Ministers are followed through into practice.”