Paganism fights on principle

The Pagan Federation's bid for charitable status is heading for the charity tribunal

Jack in the Green Festival: Drumming up support for the Pagan Federation
Jack in the Green Festival: Drumming up support for the Pagan Federation

Faith is high on the Charity Commission's agenda at the moment. It is already preparing to fight an appeal in the charity tribunal against its decision to deny charitable status to the Preston Down Trust, which runs an Exclusive Brethren meeting hall in Devon; and more recently, the Pagan Federation has lodged a similar appeal.

The regulator declined to register the federation in October, ruling that it was "not established exclusively for charitable purposes for the public benefit, because it does not meet all the essential characteristics of a religion for the purposes of charity law, nor is it for the public benefit". The federation was established in 1971 to provide information and take on misconceptions about Paganism.

The commission's decision is interesting, says Emma Moody, head of charities at the commercial law firm Dickinson Dees, because it has said in the past that it is not the regulator of religion. But it is now saying, she says, that the Pagan Federation is not a religion because it does not meet its requirements.

She says there is no problem for faith organisations setting up as charities if there is a comparable faith organisation already registered, because the commission will rely on previous case law. The problem arises, she says, when organisations with different beliefs apply and there is no legal precedent. An example is the Druid Network, which fought a four-year battle with the regulator before it gained charitable status in 2010.

Moody senses the Pagan Federation views registration as a "badge of religious status". But she says amending its objects to focus on education might offer it a better chance of being registered as a charity because "to advance education, it would not necessarily need to be proven that Paganism was a religion".

The federation has considered this, says its vice-president, Belinda Winder, who concedes it might make things easier. But she believes that doing so would be a compromise and the matter is a "point of principle".

"Paganism is a religion and we want it to be classed as a religion," says Winder. She points out that Paganism is already recognised as a religion by employment tribunals and the Ministry of Justice - Pagan prisoners can choose four of the eight festivals Pagans typically celebrate annually as days when they should not be required to work. The Pagan Federation has about 4,000 members and Paganism is, according to the last census, the seventh largest religion in the UK.

Michael King, chairman of the charity solicitors and lawyers Stone King - which has advised the Brethren but is not representing it at the tribunal - says part of the problem for the Pagan Federation is that Paganism is too much of an umbrella term. Traditions that are classed as Pagan include Druidry, Wicca and Shamanism.

"To be charitable you have to follow clearly identifiable charitable purposes," says King. "There's no particular system of beliefs or doctrines here, so I don't see that it has the marks of charity about it." If he were advising the Pagans, he would tell them to stop being "an umbrella for everybody, and rather vague" and instead be clear about what they offer.

Winder says that the Charity Commission also has a problem with Paganism being an umbrella term for linked religions, but she argues that every religion - including Christianity - has different pathways.

- See our Big Issue on the Preston Down Trust

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