Church leaders raise concerns over proposed legal requirements to demonstrate that Catholic dioceses, religious orders and charities benefit the British public
BY SIMON CALDWELL
EIGHTY-TWO Catholic charities have complained to the Charity Commission over the language used in guidelines drafted to explain how they must show they benefit the public.
They are alarmed that the terminology used for religious groups is different from that used to describe other organisations.
"We are concerned that the language used in connection with religious charities in the draft guidance is negative in contrast to that used for other sectors," they said in a joint submission to a public consultation by the commission.
"The only comments about religious charities refer to 'risk', 'public concern' or benefit which are 'too vague or intangible'," they added.
The charities have asked the commission to allay their concerns by expressing a "provisional" positive view of their work ahead of the publication of the final document in October.
The submission by the charities was prepared by a committee headed by Archbishop Peter Smith of Cardiff, the chairman of the English and Welsh bishops' Department for Christian Responsibility and Citizenship.
They include all 19 Catholic dioceses of England and Wales and the majority of the religious orders. Most enclosed monasteries and convents, however, do not have charitable status. Their comments reveal nervousness that religious groups could be penalised under new legal tests for public benefit.
They come just months after Cardinal Cormac MurphyO'Connor, the Catholic leader of England and Wales, accused New Labour of legislating for intolerance" during a speech in which he also spoke of his fears that religion could be forced to the margins of society by a "secularism which is aggressive".
The Church is already contemplating the closure of its 13 adoption agencies after the Cabinet in January refused to allow exemptions to rules that would force the agencies to place children in the care of same-sex couples, and it fears other Catholic institutions may face similar attacks in the future.
The threat to the Church's charitable status follows the abolition under the Charity Law Act 2006 of the presumption that the advancement of religion was automatically of benefit to the public.
In the future, religious groups must demonstrate, on an annual basis, precisely how the public will benefit from their activities to qualify for charitable status.
They must also provide evidence of "intangible benefits", such as a person's spiritual welfare, if they are to receive public approval as a charity and the millions of pounds in tax relief that comes with it.
The submission by the Catholic charities expressed the concern that the guidance on the importance of intangible benefits was not sufficiently clear.
"They are mentioned but only in the context of tangible evidence that such benefits exist," the submission said.
"If tangible evidence of intangible benefits has to be produced for them to be treated as conferring public benefit upon a charity's activities, it is very close to saying that intangible benefits are not accepted in law.
"If a wide cross-section of society recognises, for exam pie, that people attending church services obtain spiritual benefits then that should be sufficient evidence for the commission to accept that public benefit should be conferred."
Under the reforms, any benefits will also be balanced against any "disbenefits" or harm, which will give groups or individuals the opportunity to complain about the activities of organisations they oppose.
The Catholic charities pointed out in their submission that "there is little clarity as to how disbenefits will be defined in practice and by whom".
But Dame Suzi Leather, the chairman of the Charity Commission, said in a speech to the Charity Law Association last month: "Our decisions about what is or is not of benefit to the public will be strongly, and rightly, influenced by what is relevant and appropriate for the modem social conditions of the day."
She added: "We cannot assume something is beneficial today simply because it was regarded as beneficial many years ago."
The guidelines. however, say that it is not within the Charity Commission's remit to look into traditional, long-held religious beliefs or to seek to modernise them.
Neville Kyrke-Smith, the UK director of Aid to the Church in Need, a charity which helps persecuted and suffering Christians around the world and which was among the charities included in the Catholic submission, said that the definition of public benefit could be open to "political whim, change and interpretation".
"It really is opening up a hornet's nest," he said. "Would what we are doing in China helping a Church loyal to Rome be seen as a public benefit by the Chinese authorities? I very much doubt it.
"There will be huge arguments opening up. People who are extremely anti-religious would say that what we are doing is a "disbenefle."
He said that Aid to the Church in Need is at present able to claim almost half a million pounds in tax relief through the gift aid system.
"Charitable status is of considerable importance to us," said Mr Kyrke-Smith. "It is also recognised that people tnkst you because you are a registered charity.
"But we would refuse to adapt what we do to a highlypolitical or politically charged, politically correct climate."
In November the Charity Commission will begin a separate three-month consultation on guidance specifically for the sub-sectors of religious. educational and anti-poverty charities.
The reforms are also causing concern among Evangelical Christians.
Andrea Minichiello Williams, barrister and public policy officer at Lawyers' Christian Fellowship, said: -Public benefit is not defined in the Charities Act 2006 and it has specifically been left to the Charity Commission to consult on the matter. Christian charities will now have to prove their 'public benefit' to the Charity Commission.
"It is of concern that the Charity Commission has said it will interpret 'public benefit' in the light of 'modern conditions'. What this could mean for Christian charities that exist for evangelism or which promote traditional Christian teaching on family and life issues is unknown."
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