The Charity Commission and Christianity

Yesterday two reports, one concerning the outcome of an appeal by Catholic Care, a Leeds-based adoption agency, to restrict adoption to heterosexual couples, and another concerning the Plymouth Brethren’s application for charitable status, gave me pause for thought. Both involved the Charity Commission and the concept of public benefit; both suggested (to me, as a non-lawyer) that there is no longer a presumption in favour of traditional charitable activities being regarded as charitable in law.

In the case of the first, Mr Justice Sales ruled that the adoption agency’s refusal to allow homosexual couples to adopt was in breach of the E.U. human rights legislation. He upheld the Charity Commission’s right to maintain that the agency could not have charitable status while it operated such a policy of discrimination since it could not demonstrate that its work was of public benefit. At the same time he observed that

In my opinion, donors motivated by respect for Catholic doctrine to have a preference to support adoption within a traditional family structure cannot be equated with racist bigots, as Ms Dixon sought to suggest. Such views have a legitimate place in a pluralist, tolerant and broadminded society.

(You can download the whole of the judgement here).

I must confess it would never have occurred to me to equate the charitable work of any Catholic organization with racist bigotry. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more absurd and insulting it becomes. That, however, is not the point I wish to highlight. It is the interpretation of public benefit that bothers me. Until Labour re-wrote the basis on which our conception of charity rests, the charitable activities of faith-groups were considered inherently charitable in law. The way in which the test of public benefit is now being applied suggests that it is gradually being undermined.

On the same day the Christian Institute (about which I know nothing) published a report about the Plymouth Brethren’s being refused charitable status by the Charity Commission, on the grounds that they do not provide any public benefit. Bruce Hazell, an Elder, noted that the group, which has 16,000 members, takes part in activities such as street preaching, distributing literature, giving away food and drink and visiting people in hospital. (You can read the report here). For seven years and at considerable expense, the Brethren have argued their case to no avail. Yet again, it seems that the Charity Commission is testing the concept of public benefit, particularly as it applies to Christian organizations.

I hope we shall soon get some informed comment from lawyers as the implications of these cases stretch quite far. Take away the contribution of faith-based charities, and the voluntary sector could look a lot less . . . charitable.

Addendum: please see the links in the comments, for which I’m very grateful. My friend Stuart over at eChurch Blog has also commented on the Catholic Care case and included some links: http://bit.ly/TAYuBP.

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12 thoughts on “The Charity Commission and Christianity”

  1. The Exclusive Brethren case is complex, and the Christian Institute report is (not unusually for that organisation) somewhat one-sided. The ruling referred to one particular trust (which I believe existed to own the premises used by one congregation), not to the denomination as a whole, and the Charity Commission essentially ruled that, despite repeated requests, they had been given no evidence that the trust’s activities contributed to the public good. There is an well-informed piece here: http://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2012/07/27/charitable-status-public-benefit-and-closed-congregations/ which discusses the case (with an interesting reference to a very old case asking if a closed Carmelite convent contributed to the public good).

  2. An interesting change in the philosophy behind charitable status. Just spreading your religion is likely to not be enough.
    Our church quietly gives more at Christmas to aid others than the people who wander the streets dressed up as father Christmas.
    I think we may need to be less secret about our giving and good works to satisfy the government.

    The racist comment seems strange, however discrimination law does not seem to differentiate between types of difference. Colour and race you are born with, are other differences arguably life style choices?

  3. Oh my, so by limiting charities based on faith in such a manner the law is declaring the right way to live and adopt children is to be homosexual, because if you don’t accept that, you are in the WRONG! Good old England! Not to mention Spain and so on… fortunately it hasn’t come to Italy yet, and if I have my way, it never will.

  4. No, Eva. The law as it stands maintains that to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation is wrong and therefore an organization like Catholic Care cannot claim its activities are charitable in law. The bigger issue here is what constitutes public benefit because every registered charity has to demonstrate public benefit from its activities.

    • I’m afraid I don’t agree with that law, though of course there’s not much I can do except yell to all four corners of the world that it is the child that is being discriminated against by burdening it with two mums or two dads, that is wicked and morally insane because it is the birthright of every child to a proper mother and a proper father and any law that does not defend that right is a blasphemous law.

  5. There’s a slight degree of confusion about this case: I’ve blogged about it here at length: http://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2012/07/27/charitable-status-public-benefit-and-closed-congregations/.

    The so-called “Plymouth” Brethren are members of a mainstream Evangelical Christian Church and they call themselves “Brethren” or “Christian Brethren”: the “Plymouth” bit is a kind of nickname. (It’s rather like the usage in my own Society: we tend to refer to ourselves as “Friends” but are more usually known as Quakers.)

    The Exclusive Brethren are not like mainstream Brethren: they only eat with those with whom they share communion (so they don’t eat or drink with non-Exclusives) and there is some dispute about the extent to which their services are open to the public.

    At to whether or not the Exclusives should lose their charitable status I have no view: but my point is that the mainstream “Plymouth” Brethren are an entirely different organisation and because of the confusion of nomenclature they are getting dragged into this by accident.

  6. I’ve watched the case regarding the Yorkshire adoption organisation with some interest for a while.

    I am firmly of the opinion that a person cannot select their sexual orientation, and therefore it is as inherent as skin colour. Perhaps then a comparison between discrimination on the grounds of race and discrimating on the grounds of sexual oriention is not so melodramatic. I would argue that having a religion is more a lifestyle choice than following the natural inclination of your sexual orientation.

    Beyond that, however, an organisation that aids heterosexual couples in adopting children is still clearly providing public benefit, so the ruling makes no sense to me. If they are in breach of human rights law, then that is a different matter.

    It also bothers me that human rights interpretation repeatably disfavours the rights of people to abide by their faith, when it contradicts the rights of other people. It seems wrong to me that the law does not allow for compromise, but then I also know that is the principle of justice. There are other options for homosexual couples to adopt, so how significant is it if one agency turns them away? By contrast, this ruling makes it impossible for any Catholic adoption agency to operate, without compromising on something that might be considered a fairly core aspect of the faith.

  7. The issue of human rights in terms of freedom of religion seem to be trumped by those of others to express themselves in any way that they wish. I believe in human rights, but it seems that they are being used as weapons to discriminate with anyone who does not agree with something you hold dear.

    As for public benefit. It’s a device designed too allow a charity to validate that its actually doing what its objects say in it’s governing document, issued and agreed with the Charity Commission when it’s set up.

    The conclusion that I draw from some recent decisions is that a bias might exist in the Charity Commissions interpretation of what is or is not discriminatory, and they have the ideal weapon at hand in public benefit to get their way.

    I believe that a review of the both areas of legislation are well overdue – because such decisions passed down by the courts, seem contrary and in opposition to what was previously common law or covered by legislation with a lighter touch.

  8. Steve Holmes is totally wrong. i have spoken with these Plymouth Brethren and they provided the Charity Commission two full colour presentations – one of which i have seen which fully set out their public benefit activities

    The commission have a hidden agenda against this group

    My wife and I have proved their care and support over the last 11 years

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