By The Revd Canon Chris Sugden, AAC
When charities and charity laws were first established in England in 1601, it was held that any religion is better than no religion, and was therefore of benefit to society. "The advancement of religion" was a legitimate charitable purpose. The religion at that time was of course "Church of England".
Since then, the situation has changed. Some violence and terror are sanctioned by some religious groups. So, is religion in and of itself a public benefit?
In 2006, the current leader of the Labour Party, Ed Milliband, when Labour was in power, brought in an act that introduced the concept of "Public Benefit" for an organisation to be charitable. This was intended to address independent private schools, many of which were registered charities and received tax benefits. This was designed to increase their activities in providing education for the disadvantaged in some way.
However, according to Peter Bone, MP and an Anglican, this act had an unintended consequence. While Ed Milliband said the change would not affect existing churches, the concept of "Public benefit" had been left undefined. Therefore, some secular people on the Charity Commission had begun to put their own interpretation on what was meant by public benefit.
It should not be the Government who defines public benefit. We have seen the direction that that might head. For example, Catholic adoption agencies were forced to close unless they conformed to the new equality legislation and were allowed no "reasonable accommodation."
Mr Bone has therefore proposed a bill to return to the presumption that religion is itself a public benefit and sets out three tests: that particular religion should provide an opportunity for prayer; that it should express social work and education and provide money for charitable purposes.
In the course of demonstrating public benefit, the Churches have shown that they provide 23 million hours of voluntary work directed outside the churches per month, for half a million young people outside church related activities or schools, and are the largest voluntary organisation in the country bar none.
Read the rest of this entry »