Charity law

Ch.2, §1: Polytheism (pp.52–57).

Dawkins, as an aside, talks about the presumption in charity law that monotheistic religion counted as a public good, and that its promotion could therefore be given charitable tax exemption – whereas polytheistic religions did not. Now, as I understand it, that is no longer the case. Christine Barker wrote in 2003:

While the present exemptions under UK charity law may seem to favour Christian organisations, it is a long-established tradition that charity law does not discriminate between religions. However, until relatively recently there was a widely held view that only monotheistic religions could be charitable. This approach is not one which has been followed in recent years when determining charitable status. Quint and Spring note that not only have Hinduism, Sikhism, the Ravidassian religion and Buddhism been accepted as charitable by both the courts and the Charity Commissioners, but that charities promoting “less traditional religions such as Unitarianism, Spiritualism, the Exclusive Brethren, the Unification Church (Moonies), Jainism, Bahai and (recently) the Seventh Day Adventists, besides many small and local sects, have also been registered by the Commissioners”.

(I think ‘Quint and Spring’ refers to Quint, Francesca, and Spring, Thomas, “Religion, Charity Law and Human Rights”, Charity Law & Practice Review, Vol. 5, Issue 3, pp.153-186 – but I have been unable to check.)

It is also worth noting that there is currently a review of charity law which addresses the need for all bodies granted charitable status to demonstrate the ‘public benefit’ of their activities. A public consultation was held, and they aim to publish new guidance next month. The draft rules include the following definition of ‘public benefit’:

Principle 1: There must be an identifiable benefit

  • It must be clear what benefits a charity’s purposes provide to the public.
  • The nature of the benefit may look very different depending on what the charity is set up to achieve.
  • Charities can provide different sorts of benefits to the public but must not be concerned with fulfilling a political purpose.
  • Benefits must be balanced against any ‘disbenefits’ or harm.

Principle 2: Benefit must be to the public, or a section of the public

  • Who constitutes ‘the public’ will vary depending on the organisation’s purposes.
  • It is not a simple matter of numbers. ‘The public’ can mean groups, communities, society or humanity. It can mean geographical, social or economic communities; it does not just mean people in the UK.
  • Where benefit is not to the public at large, benefit can be to a ‘section of the public’ where restricting the benefit in that way is relevant to the charitable purposes.
  • But, public benefit will be affected where the restrictions are irrational, unreasonable or unjustified.

Principle 3: People on low incomes must be able to benefit

Principle 4: Any private benefit must be incidental

  • There is a ‘private benefit’ where an individual or organisation personally gains from receiving a benefit. In some cases that gain may be charitable; in some cases not.
  • Charities can provide private benefits provided that those benefits directly contribute towards achieving the charity’s purposes and/or are incidental to carrying out those purposes.
  • A charity must provide more public benefits than private benefits.

This looks fairly reasonable to me, though I don’t have enough relevant background to allow me to trust my judgment. It does look like a charter for some interesting debates, though – debates in which I think I can imagine the side that Dawkins will take. But anyway, it looks as if the situation he describes is changing, at least in the UK.

3 Thoughts on “Charity law

  1. I am getting more and more irritated with Dawkins (& so grateful that you are wading through the book on my behalf). On your account, his research is consistently sloppy and frequently outdated, and he doesn’t care. In this case, I think he is mixing up 2 things: (1) the fact that long-established religious charities were exempted from registration _altogether_ until the 2006 Charities Act (basically a historical accident, which did in some ways ‘favour’ Christianity, or at least the branches of it that arrived in the UK before the relevant date in the 19th century); (2) the decisions made by the Charity Commissioners on individual cases where religious charities _did_ have to register (because they didn’t get in under the historical exemption). Public benefit, as you rightly say, wasn’t in fact a requirement for registration before the 2006 Charities Act; ‘religion’ (like ‘education’) was a separate category alongside public benefit, and there was no claim before 2006 that ‘public benefit’ was the single umbrella under which all charitable activities had to be brought. (Hence, incidentally, the issues now facing private schools re maintaining their charitable status). The question with monotheism/polytheism will have been, I would guess, about what counted as ‘religion’ within the meaning of the (old) Act, rather than about what counted as ‘beneficial to the public’. Which is itself very interesting, and might work for a different bit of Dawkins’ argument I suppose, but not for this one.

  2. I think the errors may be more mine than Dawkins’. His initial paragraph on this actually reads: ‘Monotheistic chauvinism was until recently written into the charity law of both England and Scotland, discriminating against polytheistic religions in granting tax-exempt status, while allowing an easy ride to charities whose object was to promote monotheistic religion, sparing them the rigorous vetting quite properly required of secular charities.’ He goes on to say ‘Far better, of course, would be to abandon the promotion of religion altogether as grounds for charitable status.’

    On the one hand, I managed to ignore his ‘until recently’, I’m afraid – too much haste – and on the other my comment about the presumption that religion was a public good was a gloss on that last sentence I’ve quoted, rather than his words. And I think it is fair to say that the presumption built in to the old law (or that came to be built in to its operation) was that ‘religion’ was in and of itself a public good of some kind – see – so the question of what counted as religion within the meaning of the Act was not entirely divorced from the public benefit question.

  3. No, you may possibly be on the hook, but he’s not off it: (a) promotion of religion per se _has_ now been abandoned as grounds for charitable status, this being the point of the 2006 Act and the public benefit requirement; (b) as I understand it “monotheistic chauvinism” was never written into charity law, although “bias in favour of religions that had been around in England and Wales for a long time” was [I don’t know the Scottish situation so well]; (c) religious charities exempt from registration (ie not all monotheistic religions, but the ones that were in the right place at the right time), while spared the ‘vetting’ involved in actually registering themselves with the Charity Commission, were subject to the same laws as other charities with regard to the proper keeping of accounts, the duties of trustees, etc., as a (very necessary and proper) condition of their tax-exempt status.

    OK, religious-charity-finance-nerd hat off (what is even sadder is that I never owned that hat, I just borrowed it from my husband…)

    But perhaps we should concede to Dawkins that he understands charity law considerably better than he understands the doctrine of the Trinity. (You could probably say the same for quite a few people, but most of them aren’t trying to write books about God, with comments about charity law as asides).

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