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.