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.


  • Ibis3

    So Bone wants the government to assume that all religious entities have a public benefit rather than evaluate whether or not they do?

  • keddaw

    “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.”

    Then you are a monster.

    “They don’t pay taxes so let them and their children die in a fire.”
    “They don’t pay taxes so the cops shouldn’t stop them raping their children.”
    “They don’t pay taxes so the cops shouldn’t stop them being attacked.”

    Is that what you’re suggesting? If not, I suggest you change such idiotic rhetoric.

  • Joanna H.

    I’m from the US, so I might not be the best qualified to answer this, but I certainly hope the government doesn’t automatically assume that churches are charities. Churches need to have some sort of benefit to the public, like hospitals, schools, food pantries, etc. and it needs to be a major part of their mission. They should not be allowed to do just enough to escape government scrutiny and spend the rest of their time promoting their beliefs. For example, the Westboro Baptist Church does absolutely nothing to benefit the public, and I’m not even sure you can call them a church. I think it is just an excuse for them to not pay taxes and to lend some (however thin) layer of legitimacy to their lunatic ravings. I say make them, and all other groups like them, pay taxes like everyone else.

  • machintelligence

    You wouldn’t make a very good libertarian.

  • machintelligence

    That was supposed to be a reply to keddaw

  • Neil Rickert

    I prefer that no churches be charities.

    Or, maybe every citizen should become his own church, and we can all be charities.

  • ortcutt

    In the US, churches are automatically considered 501(c)3 tax exempt without even needing to file the 1023 form that other non-profits need to file. I often hear secularists talking about removing tax-exemption for churches. I’d be happy enough if churches were just treated the same as other non-profits, rather than with the preferential status that they now receive. Sadly, this looks like an attempt to make the UK more like the US in this regard.

  • Graham Martin-Royle

    The whole point of being a charity is that it does some public charitable service. If the group doesn’t do that, why should it have charitable status? A further point to make is, why does the promotion of religion automatically appear as a public good and thereby entitle an organisation to obtain charitable status. This whole are is riddled with anomalies and inconsistencies.

  • Stev84

    The IRS does assume that all churches are charities. They don’t really have to prove that they are non-profit and applications are very easy. Secular non-profits have a much harder application process for tax-exempt status and have to open their books.

    This proposal would make churches in Britain more like American ones.

  • Quintin van Zuijlen

    No-one should ask for services they do not wish to pay their fair share for.

  • coyotenose

    If it was changed to “If you actively evade contributing in some way, you not do not get to freeload off the rest of society,” then I could get behind it. But the original “If you do not contribute in some way, you not do not get to freeload off the rest of society” comes off as a nasty sentiment.

  • DougI

    I just had to file taxes for the non-profit I volunteer for. It would be nice if churches had the same standards where they have to report income and expenses. Churches like to think they are the paragons of virtue, so why should they have a problem with revealing to the public their finances?

  • Robin

    I don’t think all churches should be considered charities, obviously. I think it’s ridiculous to assumes that all religions are for the public good- what about things like Scientology? What about the part of the public that happens to be gay, or female? Secular groups like the Richard Dawkins foundation have to prove that they provide some benefit to the public. If religious groups don’t, that basically enshrines descrimination in favor of religion in law. Of course that’s nothing new, we have no seperation of church and state, but when 25% of the public now claims no religion, how can this be justified?

    It is important that charities are properly evaluated, so that people who donate to them, and taxpayers, can be sure that they’re getting value for money. Claiming religion shouldn’t shield people from being accountable to the law.

    The national secular society had this to say about it:

    “Bills introduced under the ten-minute rule are generally used only as a
    means of making a political point as there is little parliamentary time
    available to pass the bill into law.”

    so, maybe it won’t come to anything.

  • Hypatia’s Daughter

    Not all non-profits are charities. Hobby clubs (like an astronomy club
    or garden club), schools, hospitals, co-operatives, PTA’s, home owners
    associations, etc are non-profits, in the sense they don’t have to pay
    taxes on their exempt income. (Search for the 990 or 990EZ Schedule A
    which lists various non-profit institutions.) Basically, the IRS exempts
    them because they aren’t intended to be profit making entities or
    because they offer a public good, such as healthcare or education.
    So, churches merit an exemption even if they aren’t doing charitable services.

    However, as Dougl points out, they should be obligated to file like all other non-profits.And they should be prosecuted or lose their exempt status if they violate the terms of their exempt status – like running businesses in the church (like bookshops) or political proselytizing from the pulpit. But that takes some political backbone and we have a shortage of that now.

  • mobathome

    Liability lawsuits.

  • ortcutt

    The traditional source of the list of charitable purposes was the Preamble to the Charitable Uses Act of 1601. It lists, “the relief of aged, impotent, and poor people; the maintenance of sick and maimed soldiers and mariners; schools of learning; free schools and scholars in universities; the repair of bridges, ports, havens, causeways, churches, sea banks, and highways; the education and preferment of orphans; the relief, stock, or maintenance of houses of correction; marriages of poor maids; support, aid, and help of young tradesmen, handicraftsmen and persons decayed; the relief or redemption or prisoners or captives; and the aid or ease of any poor inhabitants covering payments of fifteens, setting out of soldiers, and other taxes.”

    While the repair of churches is included, the advancement of religion generally is not included. As such, our laws have devolved.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    How about instead of charitable organizations the tax authorities recognize charitable activities? I.e. a church is only tax-deductible as a charity to the extent that it performs charity. If 95% of their money goes to proselytization and decadent clergy lifestyles, then that 95% should not be tax-exempt.

  • keddaw

    I’m not sure they were. What the author said, and I quote, was: “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”

    In which case I would say he’s being a bit of a dick. Just because other’s are secluding themselves from society does not mean we have to be equally arseholish. Charity, my friend, is generally a good thing.

  • keddaw

    Also, and this is kinda important, just because the group they belong to are not paying their fair share does not mean the individuals are not.

    And, just to make this explicit, we protect kids. It’s one of the points of society. They pay nothing in but we protect them anyway. So anyone who says “fuck those who don’t contribute” is an asshole.

  • Trevor Clift

    In the UK all registered charities must file accounts with the Charity Commissioners. The accounts must include a summary of the year’s events and how the charity objectives were met and furthered. This is public and immediately available online, giving accountability to their donors. This applies to all genuine churches who are registered with the Charity Commissioners.

  • Paisleydog

    Well stated. and factual article. I was a part of the Exclusive Brethren for many years so I have personal knowledge of how they operate. The Exclusive Brethren – recently re-branded as Plymouth Brethren Christian Church are currently doing some minimal charitable functions in the UK to make it look like they are a benefit to the general public. The EB/PBCC followers are taught to HATE the world and the things of the world and have never been interested in any charitable acts that benefit anyone other than themselves until their charitable status has been threatened. While they are now saying that their meeting halls are open to outsiders in the UK, there is no indication that this is happening anywhere else in the world. Again something that is being done just to preserve their charitable status.

    For more information on this group as reported by Four Corners: