A legal appeal will decide if the Charity Commission was right to deny charitable status to the Brethren movement – the case hinges on whether its doctrine and practices are compatible with public benefit
January 3, 2013
Last month saw the formal start of a charity tribunal appeal that could redefine the place of religion in the charity sector. The case – which has been the subject of increasingly acrimonious debate in parliament and the media – concerns the Charity Commission's decision not to grant charitable status to the Preston Down Trust, which runs a meeting hall for south Devon's Plymouth Brethren community.
Founded in the 19th century, the Brethren are a Christian movement whose lifestyle is characterised by daily bible study, an emphasis on traditional family roles and a rejection of radio, TV and cinema. Their doctrine of "separation" limits time spent with outsiders, but adherents say the popular perception that the community lives in isolation, severing all ties with those who choose to leave – hence the "Exclusive Brethren" epithet – is an outdated stereotype.
The case hinges on whether the doctrine and practices of the Brethren are compatible with the public benefit requirement of charity law. Until the Charities Act 2006 there was a presumption that "advancement of religion" was in itself a public benefit, but the act removed that presumption and required religious charities – just like those with other legally defined charitable purposes – to demonstrate explicitly how their activities made a positive contribution to the community.
In a recent letter to the Commons public administration select committee, which is conducting an inquiry into the regulation of the charity sector and the 2006 act, the commission was forced to explain why the Druid Network had charitable status while the Brethren did not. The commission said this was because the former did not support events or organisations that were "exclusive".
The commission has previously drawn on case law developed before 2006 to resolve such questions. But in its letter to the trust, the regulator said the act's introduction – and the tribunal's recent assessment of public benefit in relation to private schools – meant this aspect of charity law was now unclear. "The evidence is relation to any beneficial impact on the wider public is perhaps marginal and insufficient to satisfy us as to the benefit to the community," it said.
The letter outlined two specific concerns: first, that the trust may not provide "meaningful access to participate in public worship" and secondly, that the supposedly rigid disciplinary practices of the Brethren, and the "effects of the doctrine and practice of separation on family, social and working life", may negate potential public benefit. The letter stresses, however, that the latter is based on "public criticism" rather than solid evidence.
The commission considered referring the matter to the charity tribunal for clarification but decided not to. And as it deemed an internal decision review to be "inappropriate", the trust's only option – apart from accepting the decision – was to appeal to the tribunal and become a test case for other Brethren congregations, and potentially for other religious groups too.
When parliamentarians and parts of the media found out about its decision, they were quick to accuse the commission of "anti-Christian" bias. Brethren elders were invited to give evidence to the public administration select committee, during which Charlie Elphicke MP claimed the regulator was "committed to the suppression of religion". The case also dominated last month's Westminster Hall debate on charity registration, with some MPs calling for a full parliamentary inquiry.
To the surprise of many, the Brethren have run a tight public relations campaign – not that they're relishing the attention. "It's a feeling of puzzlement and great sorrow to us that we're having to go through this battle," says Rod Buckley, a member of the Preston Down congregation. "I don't quite understand it. We do a lot in the community and people that know us, know that."
Buckley points to the Brethren's soup kitchens, food parcel collections and the help they gave to those affected by the recent floods as clear examples of their positive impact on the community. He adds that while holy communion – the "Lord's supper" in Brethren parlance – is accessible only to members, other events are open to all. No different, he says, to many mainstream religious groups.
The commission stresses that it does not have general concerns about religious charities, but those following the case have warned it could have wider ramifications. "It does potentially impact on other organisations, particularly where they restrict access to participation in religious services, meetings or activities, or where there's an emphasis on an enclosed community," says Stephanie Biden, a senior associate at charity solicitors Bates Wells & Braithwaite.
In an unprecedented move, the tribunal has allowed the commission to file anonymous witness statements and for witness protection measures to be put in place. The decision is in response to evidence received by the commission from former Brethren members, whose relationships with family members still in the group are particularly sensitive.
If these witnesses do testify at the full hearing in March 2013, the tribunal may have to answer a question that could have far-reaching consequences: when do allegations of harm against a particular religion or denomination outweigh potential public benefit? There is no shortage of controversial religious groups on the register, after all.
Despite the commission's protestations, the case is unlikely to be seen merely as a clarification of charity law. The regulator has found itself at the centre of a row about religious freedom – and with the Brethren vowing to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary, it's a row that's likely to get even more heated in the coming months.
James Gray is an independent campaigns adviser and writer with a particular interest in education. His Twitter username is @james_gray_