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Charity Law Update-Specific Consultation for Religious Groups on Public benefit

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The Charities Act 2006 is an attempt by the Government to create a level playing field regarding the need for charities to prove public benefit. All charities, including those charities whose purposes concern advancing religion or education or the relief of poverty, are now required explicitly to show that their aims promote public benefit. Failing this, new and existing religious charities will no longer be considered to be charitable and will lose the tax and other benefits associated with being a charity. Previously these 3 types of charities were presumed to be of public benefit.

The Charity Commission's general guidance, ‘Charities and Public Benefit’ and ‘Summary Guidance for Charity Trustees’, published in January 2008, explains in general terms what the public benefit requirement means. But the Commission has now produced a specific Consultation for religious charities in their draft supplementary ‘Public Benefit and the Advancement of Religion’ guidance. The Consultation for this religious sub-sector guidance will close on 30th June 2008.

One of the issues that this Consultation will cover will be how to define ‘religion’. This dilemma has arisen as a result of the changes in the Charities Act. The Charities Act states that ‘religion’ now includes a belief in more than one god, and a religion which does not involve belief in a god. ‘God’ does not start with a capital letter in any sentence of the Charities Act. This may be seen as symbolic of the changes being made.

A previous decision by the Commission in a Church of Scientology case, having considered the characteristics of a religion, concluded that the definition of ‘religion’ in English charity law was characterised by three aspects: firstly, a belief in a supreme being, secondly, an expression of that belief through worship and thirdly, that there must be an advancement of religion. Because of this decision and the changes to include more than one god or no god, the Consultation asks questions on the definition of ‘religion’. In our opinion, it is vital that any redefinition of ‘religion’ maintains the three aspects discussed in the Church of Scientology decision.

The Consultation explains that an alternative to ‘supreme being’ that has been suggested is “a divine or transcendental being, entity or principle”. The Consultation then poses the question as to the most appropriate terminology for the Commission to use to describe the object or focus of religion.

Originally, charity law was founded on a traditional Christian belief in one God. That requirement has been gradually eroded by the exceptions that have been allowed. As Christians, we need to act now to ensure that the concept of religion is not further secularised or diluted.

The LCF/CCFON is encouraging church leaders and trustees of Christian organisations to respond to the Consultation on the religious sub-sector draft supplementary ‘Public Benefit and the Advancement of Religion’ guidance to demonstrate the depth of concern amongst Christian charities. It is crucial that this Consultation receives a huge response, as amongst other important issues, the very concept of ‘religion’ in charity law will be defined. This definition will then be used to consider which charities are ‘charities’ according to the criterion of the ‘advancement of religion’.

It is of concern to note that the Commission has suggested that this particular Consultation may also be of interest to trustees advancing non-religious belief systems. In our opinion, this is neither necessary nor appropriate, as the Commission intends to have separate sub-sector guidance for such charities. If responses from those charities with non-religious beliefs are used to determine the definition of religion this may result in even further secularisation or dilution of the concept.

The LCF will be organising a Conference day on the Bill, looking at how to respond to the Bill, examining the Consultation and will in due course provide a link to our response which we hope will inform and assist you.

The link to the Consultation on draft supplementary guidance on Public Benefit and the Advancement of Religion can be found at:

http://www.charity-commission.gov.uk/publicbenefit/default.asp



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