Douglas Carswell

05 NOV 2012

Oi! Quango. Leave the Brethren alone!

Britain is, we like to think, a free and tolerant society. We're each able to do our own thing - provided it doesn't impinge on someone else's freedom to do theirs.

So why are state officials threatening to strip Brethren church groups of their charitable status?

The Brethren have been going since at least the 1820s. They've fewer than 20,000 members and one or two distinct beliefs.  

Yet the Charity Commission has taken umbrage because the Brethren fail to provide "public benefit", apparently.  They are to be stripped of their status.  Such bureaucratic bullying is not, as the excellent Charlie Elphicke, MP for Dover suggests, compatible with religious freedom.   

To be sure, the Brethren do tend to keep themselves to themselves. But so do many other faith groups I can think of. Will they, too, be told that they fail to provide a "public benefit" too? Must a faith proclaim its message is universal in order to satisfy Whitehall officialdom that it qualifies for charitable status?

Religious freedom means – amongst other things – allowing practitioners of a faith to decide for themselves who is, and who is not, part of their denomination. In other words, they can be as exclusive as they like.

The Charity Commission is imposing a state dogma of uber inclusivity on to a religious group that chooses to be moderately exclusive. Not very Big Society, is it?

Once again, when state officials make a decision on what constitutes public interest or benefit, actual members of the public – such as those Brethren who live in my part of Essex - have no say.  If the Brethren fail to tick all the Charity Commission's boxes, change the Commission and their boxes.  

Instead of replacing one quango chief with another, we need to overturn the dogma that says it is any business of state officials to be sitting in judgement of faith groups in this way in the first place.

I thought we had sorted this all out in the seventeenth century .....

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