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Donald Hardie
Posted on 23 Dec 2012 6:41 pm

Bone says ''The repercussions of such a ruling could have a disastrous effect on religious institutions and the excellent work they do in the charitable sector''. This allegation seems baseless: It is those charities who are not doing any public good in the charitable sector who are affected, not those doing excellent work. To suggest that the ruling could have a disasterous affect on charities who are doing good is discreditable scaremongering.

Bone says ''The Charities Act 2006, which was consolidated into the Charities Act 2011, removed the presumption that religious institutions have charitable status. That has led to the unintended consequence of the state being able to interfere, through the Charity Commission, with religious institutions''. Why would that be an unintended consequence? If religious institutions do not deserve charitable status, why should they be given it? It could be argued that giving any religious institutions charitable status constitutes interference by the state with religious institutions.

Bone says ''Simply put, this is state interference in religious institutions through the back door. The 2006 Act removed the presumption that religious institutions were given charitable status—indeed, religious institutions now have to give tangible proof to demonstrate that they are a public benefit to be classed as charities''. The 'back door' accusation suggests that there is a secret plot by the state to interfere with religious institutions. If religious institutions are going to receive public money, then the public deserve a degree of accountability by those institutions. To oppose such accountability is irresponsible, and if a bad motive is being suggested, then such an accusation should be qualified rather than just hinted at.

Bone echoes the objection ''how can it be demonstrated that prayer is of a public benefit?''. The answer is that it cannot be demonstrated because there is no public benefit. All scientific evidence shows that intercessory prayer does not work (in practice and in theory). This is not a matter of misguided scepticism, or some secularist dogma.

In relation to the previous legal presumption for religious institutions, Bone praises Ann Widdecombe for saying ''If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'', ignoring rational reasons for removing the presumption.

Bone quotes the part of the Charities Act that says ''the advancement of religion should be considered a charitable purpose'' and accuses the Charity Commision of being determined to misinterpret the law. In doing so, he is assuming that giving religion charity status will advance religion. How does he measure the advancement of religion? The public might argue that it should be measured in terms of benefit to the public, the very measure that Bone wants to remove. The insinuation that the Charity Commission is determined to misinterpret the law is deeply unfair.

Bone goes on to list some good things that the Salvation Army has done, giving particular mention to their helping victims of human trafficking. If the Salvation Army performs the public good that Bone claims, why would they lose charitable status? Yet that is the threat that Bone presents. The only way they would not be considered as being for the public good would be for them to do harm. And why does Bone think that only religious charities deserve the special treatment that he is advocating?

Bone continues with a special plea regarding the Church of England, as if they ought to be entitled to charitable status whatever harm they may do because, well because. Then he lists some other religious institutions that he seems to think ought not to be penalised for doing harm or for doing no good.

Bone then quotes a Charlie Elphicke's view that the Commission are committed to the suppression of religion without explaining why Bone thinks this constitutes evidence, then builds on this with an emotive wedge argument.

Bone then claims that if the presumption for religious institutions to have charitable status is not reinstated in the Charities Act, it will bring about consequences that will be detrimental to the very fabric of our society! But if that happened, it would be the fault of the religious institutions themselves for not qualifying for charitable status; institutions that Bone seems to think can do no wrong.

Bone quotes Edward Miliband as stating ''religious organisations need to be given reassurance and confidence that those that have charitable status will continue to enjoy it and that the Bill does not affect their status. We can give them that assurance in broad terms'' without saying what those religious organisations would have to do to deserve that assurance, though maybe he gives a hint by mentioning the provision of access to worship and the advancement of religion. If a religious institution failed to provide such things, it seems that Bone still thinks they should be entitled to guaranteed charitable status.

Bone's next argument is that the advancement of religion has been considered a charitable purpose for more than 400 years. How is this relevant if that advancement is for the public benefit and so not a factor in the denial of charitable status?

Bone asks ''How can a group active in the role of advancing religion that contains more 16,000 members of the British public not be considered a public benefit?''. Has he not asked the Charity Commission for their reasons?

Bone provides an examples of what he calls ''the selfless work of the Plymouth Brethren''. The example does not specifically relate to religious activities and so might be an argument for reviewing the Charity Commissions criteria in general, but is not an example that supports special treatment for religious organisations. Furthermore, Bone does not make any criticism of insular sections of the Plymouth Brethren. One has to ask what public good is served by a doctrine of separation and whether any amount of good can excuse bad practices.

The most sinister part of Bone's speech comes when he concludes ''What is happening is creeping secularism in society''. This statement is very telling. Secularism seeks to remove state interference with the harmless activities of religious institutions, not to impose the greater interference that Bone warns of. It is a philosophy that supports equality between those of differing religions (and of no religion) - nothing like the 'First They Came' totalitarianism that Bone paints a picture of. On the contrary; it is based on fairness. But, of course, secularism poses a threat to those religious institutions who currently have special privileges. An Ipsos MORI survey in 2010 found that most who consider themselves to be Christians in England and Wales support the separation of church and state, but 'Christian' institutions have their own interests at heart and regularly demonise secularists (while claiming the moral highground).

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