Should All Churches Be Considered Charities?

A group of Parliament members (MPs) led by Tory backbencher Peter Bone have voted 166 to 7 in favor of altering the law to ensure that all religions and churches are treated as charities in the UK. It comes in response to two recent Charity Commission cases in which the commission award charitable status to a Pagan group including druids, but denied it to a church hall in Devon which is run by a Brethren assembly. Bone told the House of Commons that it is “necessary to toughen up the law to protect other Christian groups, such as the Salvation Army and even the Church of England”:

The repercussions of such a ruling could have a disastrous effect on religious institutions and the excellent work they do in the charity sector. Is Judaism, the Catholic Church or even the Church of England itself going to come under pressure to prove their public benefit?

Peter Bone (via PoliticsHome)

I would argue that, yes, they should be put under pressure to prove their public benefit. Also this vote will not change the law, it is a vote to attempt to introduce a bill before Parliament that would be the first step to changing the law. In other words, a vote about having a vote — you’ve got to love British politics.

So let’s talk about what charitable status is and why groups (including churches) apply for it:

  1. It’s a badge of honor. If you are a registered charity, the public and potential sponsors are far more likely to donate money to you. It is also a sign that the Charity Commission has seen some evidence that the money goes to who the charity says it goes to.
  2. The Charity Commission gives a lot of advice to small groups and charities to help them succeed.
  3. Taxes. This is the big one. Charities are exempt from all kinds of taxes: income tax, corporation tax, inheritance tax, stamp duty, capital gains tax, and many more.

So, it’s easy to see why a church would want that — they get to keep all the money they acquire. There are some restrictions, though. For example, a charity must be exclusively a charity; in other words, it cannot undertake any other types of business. There are also limits on the types of trading a charity can undertake, as well as strict administrative requirements (such as an annual tax return and financial reporting). Finally, the charity’s trustees generally must not benefit financially in any way and can only recover reasonable expenses. Trustees must also avoid personal interest, which would conflict with acting in the best interests of the charity.

The main requirement that a group must meet to acquire charitable status is to be able to positively answer the question: “Is this group’s activities in the public interest?” That’s where we get back to the Brethren assembly.

Brethren assemblies are one of those weird tiny little Christian sects that very few people adhere to that just flies under the radar. They are very conservative and do not have any formal structure or even a church name. Brethren is simply one of many names that its members use. They do not have official clergy or liturgy, either. The one thing they do have — which all religions seem to have had at some point — is a schism. Brethren assemblies come in two types, open or exclusive.

Open Brethren groups are churches like any other; it’s just that they form to their own traditions and practices. Anyone can turn up and join the group for worship services. The groups often participate in society with charitable acts, such as working with homeless shelters, and are noted for their unusually high volume of missionary work.

Exclusive Brethren are another matter entirely. They themselves are also split into several sects but generally when someone refers to an Exclusive Brethren assembly they mean a Taylor-Hales Brethren assembly. Their groups often existed in self-imposed isolation which just adds to their cult-like nature.

Their level of control over aspects of members’ lives lead to what most people would call cult-like behavior, especially when members attempt to leave. Those people are often cut off from their homes, jobs, and families and, as a consequence, have great difficulty adjusting to life outside their assembly. There have been accusations by a former teacher in a Taylor-Hales group school that the group:

… [b]rainwashes children in order to control everything that children do in life. The children are told what jobs they will do and who they will marry. They were not being equipped to live in the outside world.

One might argue that all religions brainwash children in some way. There are varying degrees of that, of course, and Exclusive Brethren are at one end of that scale, but they are by no means unique.

Central to this issue of charitable status is whether it is right that a group who contributes absolutely nothing to society should receive tax exempt status. This group does not wish to participate in society, they do no charity work, and they don’t care for anyone outside of their own members. To me, it seems that if you wish to go down that route, you must live with the consequences. Under current law that would mean paying your taxes. If the law eventually changes, then I would argue that members of such groups be exempt from all public services including even the most basic of services such as healthcare, policing, and emergency fire assistance.

If you do not contribute in some way, you not do not get to freeload off the rest of society.

About Mark Turner

Mark Turner was born and raised as a Catholic in the North East of England, UK. He attended two Catholic schools between the ages of five and sixteen. A product of a moderate Catholic upbringing and an early passion for science first resulted in religious apathy and by mid-teens outright disbelief.

@markdturner


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