Charity laws – Frequently Asked Questions

Charity laws – Frequently Asked Questions

In exchange for generous tax benefits, registered charities are meant to provide a public benefit. They must also not promote extremism or harm.

While many religious charities serve a clear public benefit, others serve no other purpose but to propagate a particular faith. These charities benefit from considerable tax exemptions and, in a few cases, cause more harm than good. Our 2019 research into charities has examples of these.

The main reason for this apparent contradiction is that 'the advancement of religion' is considered a charitable purpose in law.

The National Secular Society believes that advancing religion does not inherently have a public benefit, and so organisations should not be able to register as charities if their sole purpose to advance religion. In 2017, 7% of all registered charities only list "religious activities" in their charitable purposes, with no other purposes.

The NSS therefore believes that "the advancement of religion" should no longer be included as a charitable purpose, and that the Charity Commission should take a neutral approach when registering religious charities. The religious ethos of a charity should give neither advantage nor disadvantage to an organisation that applies for registered charity status – the Charity Commission should evaluate whether its purposes are charitable without taking religious ethos into account.

The introduction of the Charities Act 2006 means all charities, including religious charities, must prove that they exist for the public benefit. However, a large percentage of religious charities, including many with an income of over £10 million, do not appear to present any evidence of how their activities serve the public benefit.

The Charity Commission appears to work on an outdated assumption that promoting religion inherently promotes ethical or altruistic behaviour, despite overwhelming numbers of examples to the contrary. Religious charities that could be argued as causing more harm than good include those promoting homophobia and 'gay conversion therapy', facilitating non-therapeutic infant circumcision, deliberately targeting vulnerable people for evangelism, supporting inhumane non-stun animal slaughter, running religious tribunals that undermine secular law and human rights, and promoting extremist ideology, sometimes through faith schools.

Another concern is that the Charity Commission's definition of "religion" is unsatisfactory and selectively applied. Despite there being over 74,000 Pagans in the UK in 2001 (more than the number of Jains and Bahá'ís put together), the Charity Commission rejected an application from the UK's largest Pagan organisation, the Pagan Federation, in 2012, saying that it did not meet the 'essential characteristics' of a religion or its criteria for public benefit. The number of Pagans in England and Wales alone has now risen to over 74,000, and the Pagan Federation is still not a registered charity.

The Charity Commission also rejected an application from the Temple of the Jedi Order in 2016, a decision that was criticised by a number of legal experts.

No. The presumption that religions make people and society "better" is long outdated. This idea has been disproved again and again by successive studies in countries throughout the world. For example:

  • A 2009 academic article by Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College, highlighted studies demonstrating that religious countries have higher rates of violent crime, lower rates of charitable giving, and lower levels of happiness than more secular countries.

  • Another study published in Current Biology in 2015 found that children raised in religious households were less generous than those from non-religious families.

  • A 2018 study published in Science Advances concluded that countries with less religious populations tend to be wealthier and more tolerant than more religious nations.

These examples are not intended to serve as evidence that religion causes more harm than good, or that non-religious people are more moral than religious people. Rather, they demonstrate that the commonly-held assumption that religion is inherently good is not supported by fact.

Aside from arguments over the inherent benefit of religion, public attitudes must also be considered. If a cause is to be deemed a "public benefit," and therefore exempt from tax, it is reasonable to insist that the general public on the whole agrees that it is beneficial to them, or at the very least agrees that the cause is not harmful. But research over recent years consistently demonstrates that the British are increasingly apathetic, if not suspicious, towards religion:

  • A Gallup poll published in 2023 found non-religious Britons are happier than religious ones. There was also a clear trend which showed people in less religious countries had a higher positive experience score than those in more religious ones.

  • In a 2023 Pew Research Center survey, three-quarters of Brits said it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values.

  • In a 2022 YouGov survey, the majority (55%) of Brits said religion has an overall negative influence on the world, against 19% saying it has a positive one.

  • A 2017 Ipsos survey found more than six in ten under-65s in Britain think religion does more harm than good.

  • 63% of Brits say religion has brought more conflict than peace around the world.

  • Just 10% of Brits claim that their religious or spiritual wellbeing can give them greatest happiness. This was the lowest proportion of any of the 27 countries surveyed in 2020. The worldwide mean was 27%.
  • 85% of people in Britain think their society is 'very' or 'fairly' divided, and 47% think differences 'between different religions' are among the most significant divisions in the country.

There is some justification in prevailing apathetic or negative attitudes towards religion. The UK has suffered significant acts of religious terrorism, resulting in mass loss of life. The Catholic Church, the Church of England and other religious institutions have been rocked by a series of sexual abuse scandals and subsequent cover-ups. Many religious institutions maintain and propagate misogynist and homophobic attitudes that are completely at odds with the views of the population as a whole. Religious lobbyists stand in the way of the public receiving the best possible care in the areas of family planning and end-of-life care. And dominant religious groups continue to enjoy a privileged status in government, law and education above members of minority religions and those unaffiliated with religion.

Many of the institutions which perpetuate the above issues are registered religious charities.

There is a lack of clarity over whether religious organisations with an income exceeding £5,000 a year are obliged to register with the Charity Commission. Wording in guidance by the Commission would suggest that there is a legal obligation to do so. If so, this not only increases the burden on the Charity Commission to oversee these charities, but also represents a considerable restriction on the religious freedom of those organisations. Some religious organisations may not wish to register as charities in order to retain a greater degree of independence in their activities.

Removing "the advancement of religion" from the list of charitable purposes and adopting a religiously-neutral approach to charities would benefit the general public, the Charity Commission, and religious organisations themselves:

The public: Religious organisations that do not demonstrate a public benefit would have to start paying tax, which would put money back into the public purse. More scrutiny into the supposed benefits of religious charities would also mean the only religious organisations that could become charities would be those not causing harm and genuinely doing social good.

Charity regulators: Because this approach would considerably reduce the number of religious organisations eligible for charitable status, the burden on charity regulators would be notably eased. It should be noted that in 2019, over a quarter (27%) of British charities were faith-based. Between 2006-2016, a higher proportion of faith-based organisations (34%) was registered with the Charity Commission than nonreligious charities (25%).

Furthermore, a religiously-neutral approach to charities would help to build public confidence in the validity of the concept of 'charity' as being for the public benefit.

Religious organisations: The apparent legal requirement for religious organisations with an income of over £5,000 to register with the Charity Commission puts restrictions on those organisations that do not want to be registered charities. Additionally, the fact that the Charity Commission has the legal authority, but not necessarily the philosophical authority or expertise, to define "religion" means that new, emerging spiritual movements that display considerable difference from recognised religions may not be treated equally. Removing the requirement for religious organisations to register as charities once they reach a certain income, and the Charity Commission's authority to determine what is and isn't a religion, would result in greater religious freedom.

During the run-up to Christmas, the NSS gets many questions relating to the charity 'shoe box' scheme called 'Operation Christmas Child', which is run by evangelical charity Samaritan's Purse.

Operation Christmas Child is a 'shoebox' scheme which many schools, youth groups, churches, councils and other organisations get involved with during the run-up to Christmas. Donors fill shoeboxes with toys, which are then sent to children in developing countries as 'Christmas presents'. Schools and parents often see the scheme as an opportunity to teach children about the importance of helping those less well-off.

What many participants do not know about the scheme is that its primary goal is to push fundamentalist religion on vulnerable children.

Once they arrive at their destination, the shoeboxes are given to children at an "outreach event", together with conversion-focused Christian literature. The children are also encouraged to join a Christian indoctrination programme called "The Greatest Journey". There's more information about this on the Operation Christmas Child website itself.

Countries with high numbers of Muslims in particular are targeted by Operation Christmas Child.

It is highly commendable that so many generous people in the UK want to help children in other countries – and that they want to get their own children involved in the important civil responsibility of charitable work.

But what Operation Christmas Child is doing is exploitative. It exploits children and families in poor countries by putting them under pressure to convert to fundamentalist religion. And it exploits children and families in rich countries by using their generosity as a tool for religious conversion. Many people, once they discover how the shoeboxes are used, are rightly horrified and feel duped.

Then there are other considerations, including the environmental impact of flying tons of plastic toys across the world every year. The scheme can also impact the local economy, where local vendors trying to sell their own products must compete with free handouts.

While it may make the donor feel good, filling shoeboxes with plastic trinkets to send overseas is a highly inefficient way to give to charity. Reputable charities usually seek to convert physical donations into money, because money can be used far more efficiently. Shoebox schemes are a bad idea and no major aid agency supports them.

As Brendan Paddy of Save the Children said: "It is dangerous when charities mix humanitarian work with the promotion of a particular religious or political agenda."

Operation Christmas Child is the main activity of Samaritan's Purse, a registered evangelical Christian charity. With an income of over £15.9 million in 2018, it's one of the richest religious charities in the UK. Its president is American missionary Franklin Graham, son of televangelist Billy Graham. Franklin Graham has praised Vladimir Putin's anti-gay laws, said that Muslims "should be barred from immigrating to America," and called on Christians to convert Muslims.

A number of organisations have thankfully acknowledged the unethical nature of using a gift of toys to convert children in poverty to Christianity. OXFAM, DHL, the Inland Revenue and the Co-Op have all withdrawn their support for Operation Christmas Child for this reason. Even other Christian groups have expressed serious concern.

In 2015, following advice from the NSS, Girlguiding UK confirmed that they do not support Operation Christmas Child.

But unfortunately there are still many other schools, organisations and individuals who support the scheme, unaware of its exact nature.

There are many more charities, operating both in the UK and abroad, that do genuine good. These include but are in no ways limited to:

Schools and parents shouldn't let unethical schemes like Operation Christmas Child discourage them from getting children involved in charitable giving. However, they may wish to take a close look at exactly where their donation goes and how it is used, to make an informed decision about how their goodwill can have a genuinely positive impact on the world.