Thursday, February 14, 2013
The Charity Commission for England and Wales has found itself in an ongoing dispute with a Brethren congregation over whether the congregation qualifies as a charity under British law. As detailed in a recent Parliamentary Briefing, the dispute focus on the status of a Brethren meeting Hall, the Preston Down Trust. The case involving the Trust is being used as a test case for the status of other, similar meeting halls. The Commission decided last year that the Trust did not qualify as a charity, which led to highly public criticism from both the Plymouth Brethren church and questions from MPs in Parliament according to a Telegraph article. The decision is traceable to a statutory change that led a charity Tribunal to conclude that advancing religion is no longer considered to automatically provide a public benefit. In considering whether the Trust provides a public benefit, the Charity Commission's denial letter indicates that the adherents to this particular faith sharply limit their interactions with those outside the faith and so the Charity Commission concluded that "[t]he evidence is [sic] relation to any beneficial impact on the wider public is perhaps marginal and insufficient to satisfy us as to the benefit to the community." According to a UK civil society website, the Charity Commission and the Trust are now in negotiations to attempt to resolve the issue short of a full Tribunal hearing, although a recent Charity Commission statement suggests such a resolution may be difficult to reach.