Wally Harbert: Not all religious charities are on the side of good

It would be wrong for religious groups to receive a public subsidy merely by claiming to be faith-based, he says

Religious doctrine can be harmful, writes Wally Harbert
Religious doctrine can be harmful, writes Wally Harbert

Mainstream Christianity dominates the UK's religious landscape, but it works alongside a growing diversity of faiths and beliefs, some of which are involved in activities that are difficult to reconcile with the public good. Parliament recognised this by passing the Charities Act 2006, making it necessary for religious organisations to demonstrate that they provide public benefit if they are to gain or retain charitable status.

Attempts by the Charity Commission to define public benefit have met with accusations from MPs and others that it is trying to suppress religion. Yet it is bound by a charity tribunal ruling that "there is no presumption that religion is for the public benefit".

Not every religious group is on the same side, fighting poverty, ignorance and disease. One might seek religious segregation in education; another fights for greater diversity. One preaches peace; another, violence. It would be wrong for them all to receive a public subsidy merely by claiming to be faith-based.

Some of us believe that religious doctrine is harmful, not necessarily because of its content but because it isolates young people from the lifestyles and cultures of others. We know from events in the Middle East and Northern Ireland that when different religious groups meet only on opposite sides of the barricades there is little hope of peaceful co-existence, and that hostility can extend from one generation to another.

Public concern about the use of charitable funds to support extreme beliefs is echoed by disquiet over the activities of some school governors in Birmingham and Bradford. A good test of a multicultural society is that it resolves differences of this kind in the debating chamber rather than the streets.

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