A Brethren church has been denied charitable status, in a move which some claim could lead other Christian groups into difficulties.
MPs have given their backing to an appeal by Brethren churches against a Charity Commission ruling
Preston Down Trust, which runs Brethren meeting houses in Torquay, Paignton, and Newton Abbott has appealed to the charity tribunal after the decision by the Charity Commission in July. Their appeal has been backed by Horsforth Gospel Hall, in Leeds,
This is the first time that charitable status has been refused to a religious group, since changes were made, requiring applicants to demonstrate the ‘public benefit’ of their work.
The introduction of the Charities Act 2006, means that the advancement of religion alone is not enough to make an organisation eligible for charitable status.
Because of the relatively closed and exclusive nature of the Brethren churches, it may be difficult to demonstrate this.
A Charity Commission spokeswoman said: "Our consideration of the public benefit requirement took into account the nature of Christian religion embraced by the Trust and the means through which this was promoted, including the public access to its services and the potential for its beneficial impact on the wider community.
“The central issue in the appeal will be whether the public benefit requirement is satisfied in relation the Exclusive Brethren organisations under the law as it now is.
"It is for the organisation to satisfy the Commission that it is a charity, not for the Commission to demonstrate it is not."
But some are concerned that the Preston Down case will have a knock on affect to other Christian groups. Tabling an early day motion in the house of commons, the Conservative MP for Harlow, Robert Halfon called for support for the Brethren Churches.
His Early Day Motion read: “That this House notes the decision of the Charity Commission to revoke the charitable status of a trust that is part of the Brethren Christian Church, which does a lot of good work for charity and community groups; believes that this is an extremely important test case because it has widespread implications for all Christian charitable trusts; and therefore calls on the Government and all parliamentarians to express their belief to the Charities Commission that Christian groups who are serving the community have the right to charitable status and should not be subject to politically correct bias.”
Preston Downs is not alone in the struggle, it’s appeal has been lodged alongside one by the trustees of the Horsforth Gospel Hall Trust, a Leeds-based Brethren group that was granted charitable status in 1988.
The Commission spokeswoman explained: “[Horsforth Gospel Hall Trust], along with a small number of Exclusive Brethren organisations, was registered prior to the implementation of the Charities Act 2006 on the basis of the law as it was then understood.
“The 2006 Act removed the presumption of public benefit from certain classes of charity including religious charities.
“As a result, the Horsforth Gospel Hall Trust may be affected by the decision of the Tribunal in this case and that is why they have joined in the appeal against the Commission decision not to register the Preston Down Trust.”
The Charity Commission said the tribunal is an "opportunity for the law to be clarified in this area as it affects the Exclusive Brethren".
Julian Brazier, MP for Canterbury and Whitstable, has written to the Charity Tribunal backing the two trusts’ appeal, arguing that the Plymouth Brethren has a recognised 'commitment to the public good'.
He wrote: “The Brethren Gospel Hall trusts have been recognised as charitable institutions by the Charity Commission and HMRC for over 50 years.
“I cannot therefore understand why they are now being stripped of charitable status and do not imagine that it was the intention of the previous government that the changes made by the Charities Act 2006 would impact on a well-known religious organisation in this way.
“The Brethren not only hold sessions of worship, which are open to the public, but also conduct hundreds of street preachings every week, as part of their commitment to the public good.”
The Commission clarified that, "The Commission has not revoked charitable status from the Preston Down Trust, a Brethren meeting hall. The organisation applied to be entered onto the register of charities and the application was refused on the basis that we were unable to conclude that the organisation is established for the advancement of religion for public benefit."
September 4th, 2012 - Posted & Written by Simon Cross