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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Big new concessions to religion in UK charity guidance

The charitable status of religious bodies that encourage their members — who are “consenting adults” — to refuse medical treatment, even if it will result in their premature death, will not be regarded as “damaging or dangerous” and will not be challengeable under the new charity laws. Even if children or vulnerable adults are involved, the Charities Commission says, it would regard any challenge as “contentious” and their acceptance of it would depend on whether any “disbenefit of withholding care outweighed the general benefits of religious freedom”.

The new guidance also says that holding anti-homosexual views is also OK, so long as the charities are upfront about it, so that “members of the public can make informed choices about whether to attend or support those organisations.”

The advice also says: “Charities advancing religion can require their followers or adherents to comply with religiously-derived norms of behaviour promoted by that religion. However, where doing so involves breaking the law, or where there is evidence of detriment or harm, this will affect public benefit.”

The revelations come in new supplementary public benefit guidance for religious charities, which seeks to help such charities to meet the new public benefit test that was introduced as part of the Charities Act 2006. The presumption that charities provide public benefit was removed in the Act, and charities must now prove that they benefit society.

The final guidance was the result of an extensive consultation with the sector, which resulted in a huge push by religious charities lobbying for exemptions from the law which, of course, have been duly granted.

According to the Charity Commission’s finalised guidance on the Advancement of Religion for the Public Benefit, charities that are established to advance religion but that also work to advance other charitable purposes will not have to widen their objects, provided they can show their secular work is an “outworking” of religion.

The finalised guidance also makes a number of other concessions to religious charities. As is usual when religion is involved, the language used becomes all but incomprehensible. The Charities Commission says that the benefits of advancement of religion must be demonstrable but do not need to be “quantifiable or physically experienced”.

But it says any supposed “disbenefits”, which must be outweighed by the benefits in order for organisations to be accepted as a charity, must be “fully substantiated”. In looking at individual organisations, the guidance says the Commission will disregard claims that the religion’s beliefs are unpopular and will have regard to public opinion only “where there are objective and informed public concerns about, or evidence that, the beliefs or practices of an organisation advancing religion causes detriment or harm”.

It adds: “Unevidenced claims made with the intention of causing an organisation trouble because of a disagreement with the organisation's views or stance will not be taken into consideration.”

Terry Sanderson commented: “It seems religions have been given a very wide margin to discriminate and hatemonger and still retain their charitable status. There are several evangelical groups operating as de facto political lobbying organisations that are receiving all the benefits of charitable status. It seems under these new Regulations, they will be unchallengeable.”

Mr Sanderson said that the NSS had once questioned the charitable status of the Christian Institute — a lobbying organisation — when it issued a card for its members to carry in case they were involved in a fatal accident. The card read: “In the event of my death I do not want my children to be adopted by homosexuals.”

Mr Sanderson said: “The Christian Institute were given a slap on the wrist and asked to withdraw the card by the Charities Commission. Under the new rules, it is unlikely that such a challenge would be entertained in future.”


19 December 2008


Published Fri, 19 Dec 2008