By Peter J. Smith
LONDON, June 13, 2007 (LifeSiteNews.com) – The British government has proposed that charities pass a “public benefit” test or lose tax-exempt charitable status, according to a government consultation on the plan. According to some, this new proposal could threaten the work of pro-life and religious groups in the United Kingdom.
The government proposal would require every charity to prove its “public benefit” to civil servants on an annual basis in accordance with the Charities Act 2006. If charities fail to prove “public benefit”, the government then could de-register them, denying them taxable advantages, such as allowing contributors to claim tax-deductions for donations.
The consultation period ended on June 6 and the proposal is part of a massive revamp of charity registration and management by the Charity Commissioners. The Charities Act requires a charity to have both a charitable purpose and a public benefit as well, but the consultation’s proposed annual test means the status of charities could become subject to politics.
Attorneys with the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship (LCF) have warned that Christians and pro-life advocates ought to be concerned by the proposals.
“It is of concern that the Charity Commission has said it will interpret ‘public benefit’ in the light of ‘modern conditions,’” said Andrea Minichiello Williams, barrister and public policy officer at LCF, according to Christianity Today. “What this could mean for Christian charities that exist for evangelism or which promote traditional Christian teaching on family and life issues is unknown.”
Williams noted that the law no longer presumes charities that promote religion constitute “public benefit.” In part this may be due to the Act defining advancement of religion to include polytheistic religion and religion “which does not involve belief in a god.”
However, the act is particularly ominous to charities involved in pro-life education, which are ill equipped to deal with the bureaucracy of proving their public benefit to civil servants annually. They also face the threat of financial strangulation if civil servants revoke tax-exempt status because their pro-life work is politically unfavourable.
“The politicization of the public benefit test is a real danger,” Niall Gooch, spokesman for the British charity LIFE told LifeSiteNews.com, revealing that the Charity Commission has suggested that current public opinion will be taken into account when making decisions on public benefit. This could result in rules being redrawn in such a way as to make it difficult for organizations involved in pro-life education to retain charitable status.
“The problem with determining ‘public benefit’ with reference to ‘modern conditions’ is that this is a very elastic and unclear terms could be used to make life difficult for charities that are doing important work in unpopular or little understood areas,” said Gooch.
Although LIFE is in a “relatively secure financial position,” they are still heavily dependent on the generosity of supporters and losing tax exempt status “would necessarily inhibit the expansion and development of our vital services to young people through our work in schools, and women in crisis pregnancy.”
Other British pro-life charities, however, may find their financial circumstances not so fortunate.
Both the Lawyers Christian Fellowship and LIFE urge concerned subjects to register concerns over the proposals with MPs and the Charity Commission.
In Canada, the pro-life educational movement has been seriously crippled by politicized Revenue Canada policies and rulings from the 1990s. These government actions and subsequent court rulings removed the tax deductible charitable status of two national groups and some smaller ones. The groups all folded after major but futile efforts to try to reclaim their status.
The Canadian regulations have since made it next to impossible for Canadian pro-life groups to obtain and maintain tax deductible donation status while effectively exposing the wider public to the truths on the life issues. Groups that have managed to maintain charitable status have had to carefully follow a strictly narrow definition of permitted activities, hence greatly limiting their effectiveness.
The LCF’s online response to the government proposal can be found here: www.christianconcernforournation.co.uk/Latest/docs/Charities.pdf
See related Canadian story on this issue:
ALLIANCE FOR LIFE LOSES CHARITABLE STATUS APPEAL