The charitable status of religions is up for debate

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BRITAIN’S CHARITY sector is flourishing. Nearly seven out of ten British adults say they have made a contribution to a good cause in the recent past. As of last September there were almost 170,000 charities registered with the Charity Commission in England and Wales, with a total annual income of £77bn ($102bn). (Scotland and Northern Ireland are regulated separately.)

Yet amid all this success, and maybe because of it, arguments rage over what sort of organisation should count as a charity, and hence benefit from the tax breaks and public esteem that go with that status. For all their generosity, Britons are also quite sceptical of the voluntary sector and wary of attempts to exploit their good will. It did not help when Oxfam, a globally respected development agency, admitted in 2017 that it had laid off 22 of its staff because of sex-abuse allegations.

One of the hardest arguments concerns the role of religions and religious charities. Under the Charities Act of 2011, the “advancement of religion” is listed as one of the forms of “public benefit” that can qualify an organisation for the coveted status. (There are 12 other charitable purposes which can be declared, from relieving poverty to promoting health and conserving the environment.) Among the 170,000 outfits, more than a fifth list “religious activities” among their aims, and 7% declare religion as their sole aim.

As is argued in a new report by the National Secular Society (NSS), a body which contests religious privilege, this regime has some strange consequences. It can certify militant and self-segregating forms of Islam whose influence the authorities are trying, in other contexts, to restrain. It validates newly established Pentecostal sects offering bizarre “cures” for same-sex attraction. And it endorses groups that facilitate the ritual slaughter of animals by throat-cutting methods which many regard as cruel.

The inclusion of “religious activities” as something clearly beneficial to society dates from an era when most Britons had a religious affiliation, however loose, and when the number of faiths that were widely recognised as valid forms of spiritual practice was quite limited. These days, as the report notes, some 53% of Britons say they have no religious affiliation and the number rises to 70% among people between 16 and 29. And the number of new-fangled and eccentric organisations competing for souls is growing in an almost uncontrollable way.

Adjudicating in this chaotic space can be difficult. Back in December 2016, the Charity Commission rejected an application to join the register from the “Temple of the Jedi Order”, which is a mainly online community inspired by characters from the Star Wars films. It could find nothing recognisable as “worship, reverence and adoration, veneration [or] intercession” in the group’s practices. Jedi fans did, admittedly, make reference to a mysterious “Force” that pervaded the universe, but this lacked the “cogency, cohesion, seriousness and importance” that one should expect of a religion.

Whatever one regards as cogent, there are real questions about whether agencies of the secular state should be making such judgments. The NSS proposes a neat solution: simply remove the “advancement of religion” from the list of beneficial purposes that can qualify for charitable status. Religions and faith-inspired bodies could still apply for charitable status but the onus would be on them to demonstrate some benefit to society other than simply promoting and practising their own beliefs.

If the proportion of people who follow any kind of religion continues to drop, a change along those lines will probably become inevitable. But religions, with their extraordinary ability to affect people’s lives for better or worse, will still need to be regulated, if only to protect against manifest fraud. Perhaps the main point is that religions and charities have hitherto been regulated under a single heading; in future they may need to be regulated separately.