Rules 'have a pro-religious bias'

Rules on public benefit and religion that came into force last week create an unlevel playing field and disadvantage atheist organisations, the National Secular Society has complained.

A section of the Charities Act that came into force on 1 April means that the advancement of religion is no longer presumed to be of public benefit and religious groups must actually prove that they provide it.

Nevertheless, Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said he expected little change because Charity Commission draft guidance on this issue said that proselytising and awareness raising were considered to be for the public benefit.

Porteous Wood said the draft guidance, on which the commission is seeking comments until the end of June, encouraged religious campaigning and appeared to indicate that "campaigning for more religion is charitable, but campaigning for less is not".

He called for the law to be changed so that campaigning to increase a religion's influence was not considered to be charitable.

"Many activities carried out by religious organisations are charitable, such as alleviating poverty or helping bereaved people," he said. "But when the promotion of religion itself is a primary purpose, that presents a problem."

He said his own organisation, which advocates secular government and education, is prevented from being a charity because it is deemed to be political.

"This law undermines fairness, but there's an 'I wouldn't touch that' attitude in government about religion," said Porteous Wood. "There is an innate religious bias in the administration of this country, but if you have spent any time watching the House of Lords, the idea that anything will change is unbelievable."

The Charity Commission is intending to release definitive guidance on public benefit and religion by the end of the year.

It will release separate guidance on the subject of non-religious beliefs, which is expected to include atheism and agnosticism.

Fact file

- Part of the Charities Act came into force on 1 April.

- The Charities Act lists "advancement of religion" as a charitable purpose.

- Religious, education and poverty charities are no longer presumed to provide public benefit.

- The Charity Commission has published draft guidance on religion and public benefit.

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