LONDON, November 7, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) - A Conservative Party MP has accused the government’s Charity Commission of attempting to suppress Christianity after the group denied charitable status to the Plymouth Brethren, a small denomination of conservative evangelicals. MP Charlie Elphicke has said that the Charity Commission has stepped outside its mandate telling the Brethren that their religion is “not necessarily for the public good”.
In a letter to the community, the Commission wrote of a tribunal decision that found “there is no presumption that religion generally, or at any more specific level, is for the public benefit, even in the case of Christianity or the Church of England”.
The Plymouth Brethren, of which there are about 16,000 adherents in Britain, have said they intend to pursue their dispute to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg if necessary. They have been embroiled in the dispute with the Commission for seven years since the Commission refused charitable status to one of the group’s churches in Devon. The group engages in street preaching, distributing bibles and visits hospital patients. These activities, said Garth Christie, an Elder in the group, more than qualifies them for charitable status under the “advancement of religion” clauses.
The matter became public when the Public Administration Select Committee discovered the letter as part of materials released as part of their investigation into the decision-making processes of the Commission.
The Charity Commission alleges that the group’s rule of only giving Holy Communion to full members means that their services are not open to all, a charge which the Brethren deny. The Brethren say that their public services are offered to everyone regardless of religious affiliation. If it is upheld, the rule could be extended to the Catholic Church which also officially restricts Communion reception to members.
The letter has promoted Elphicke, a member of the Select Committee, to call the Commission’s policies “anti-religion” and said that it is more evidence that it is a waste of public funds. Members of the Plymouth Brethren were giving evidence to the committee and Elphicke asked, if they thought the Commission was “actively trying to suppress religion in the UK, particularly the Christian religion”.
Christie responded, “I think we would share those concerns.” He agreed with Elphicke’s suggestion the Charity Commission’s decision could be seen as the “thin end of the wedge” with concern to other small religious groups.
Elphicke told the Brethren representatives, “I think they [the Commission] are committed to the suppression of religion and you are the little guys being picked on to start off a whole series of other churches who will follow you there.”
Bernard Jenkin, a Conservative MP and Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party said the Commission seems to be using the group as a test case to establish the meaning of the public benefit requirement in charity law.
“Picking a relatively vulnerable organisation and putting you through huge time and expense is a rotten way to decide what charity law means,” Jenkin said.