Opinion: Hot issue - Has the Charities Bill got the right formula for dealing with religion?

The Government was told last week by Lord Lester of Herne Hill that its Charities Bill risks breaching the Human Rights Act if it doesn't make clear that belief systems without a supreme being should qualify as charitable.

NO - David Pollock, trustee, British Humanist Association

The Human Rights Act outlaws official discrimination based on "religion or belief", and case law has established that belief includes non-religious world views such as humanism.

So why does the Charities Bill discriminate? Elevating "the advancement of religion" to a head of its own while humanism is relegated to the rag-bag of miscellaneous unclassifiable charitable purposes risks separate and discriminatory case law (or Charity Commission rules) being developed for applying the public benefit test to religious and non-religious belief systems. Moreover, it implies that humanism is not equivalent in kind or in value to religion and is a public slur on non-religious beliefs. At a time of religious decline (35 per cent denied believing in God to YouGov last month) and concern about morality, alternative life stances should be taken seriously, not demeaned.

The Bill is at odds with the Government's own Communications Act (which requires public service broadcasters to provide programmes about "religion and other beliefs") and its Employment Equality regulations. The Home Office Faith Communities Unit includes the humanists in its remit: it is time the Home Office Charities Unit caught up.

NO - Martin Blakebrough, chief executive, Kaleidoscope Project

As director of Kaleidoscope, a church-based project, I think there are many positive aspects of the Charities Bill. As a person interested in theology, however, I would have to say that the Bill has not properly been thought out.

A definition of religion is virtually impossible, because it either reflects our cultural heritage, or is so broad as to include those who do not feel they are part of a religion. It may well be the case that it is for the individual or group to decide if they are a religion or not. This action would be similar to people declaring their own ethnic origin, rather than someone in an office making that decision.

I would also argue that commissioners cannot decide if religious activity is for public benefit. A lot of religious activities have a clear benefit for others - soup kitchens, for example. The question is whether a life modelled on the desert fathers, where one lives a life of deep inner contemplation, acts as a public benefit.

A Christian theologian, of course, could point to inspired literature from such people as Thomas Merton and the anonymous Cloud of Unknowing, but who can really judge if these works justify to commissioners the contemplatives' way of life?

NO - Andrew Mitchell MP, shadow minister for police, law and order

It is currently very unclear what the definition of religion is for the purposes of this head of charity, as a matter of law. The Charity Commission has given a very clear indication of its views on what the term means.

This reflects that which is set out in case law, and is that religion requires a belief in a supreme being or beings and involves expression of that belief through worship. This does not encompass many multi-deity or non-deity religions.

In the Government's response to the scrutiny committee's suggestion that religion should be defined in the Act, it says that, because such religions are registered on the Charity Commission register at present, it means that they do fall within the currently understood definition of religion.

This misses the whole point. The result is that the registration is now in contradiction to the legal position. There now exists a conflict between that same legal position and the practice of the Charity Commission when it comes to registration.

It is for this reason that the matter needs to be put beyond all reasonable doubt by defining it in the Charities Bill.

NO - Sally Masheder, secretary, Network of Buddhist Organisations

The basic problem highlighted by Lord Lester concerns the definition of religion. There are several belief systems whose followers might disagree with this definition.

There has long been a debate as to whether or not Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy. The most helpful way to think about it is to think of it as both a religion and a philosophy. The Buddha himself made no claim to be a supreme being, and he refused to answer questions concerning the creation of the universe.

Regardless of the precise nature of beliefs about supreme beings, both religion and philosophy provide us with guidance as to how we should live our lives and help us to prepare for our inevitable deaths. Clearly, as a working definition, this is insufficiently precise for the purposes of legislation. In searching for a more precise definition of religion, The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is more helpful: "A system defining a code of living, esp. as a means to achieve spiritual or material improvement; acceptance of such belief (esp. as represented by an organised church) as a standard of spiritual and practical life; the expression of this in worship etc ..."

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