Some 166 MPs yesterday voted in favour of allowing Peter Bone MP to introduce a ten minute rule bill aimed at amending the Charities Act to reinstate the presumption of public benefit for religious institutions.
Just seven voted against.
As a result, the bill was presented and read for the first time, and the second reading was scheduled for 1 March 2013.
A total of 116 - 70 per cent - of the bill’s supporters were Conservative MPs.
Bone opened his address to the House of Commons yesterday by declaring that on Monday he delivered a letter to the Prime Minister signed by 113 MPs from different parties, urging the government to restore the presumption of charitable status to all religious groups.
The removal of the presumption in the Charities Act, he said, had had the “unintended consequence of the state being able to interfere, through the Charity Commission, with religious institutions”.
He went on: “The Act clearly states…that the advancement of religion should be considered a charitable purpose. Surely, if the advancement of religion is considered to be a charitable purpose, the presumption to grant religious institutions charitable status is the logical action to be taken by the Charity Commission, but the current commissioners are determined to misinterpret the law.
“How can a group active in the role of advancing religion that contains more than 16,000 members of the British public not be considered a public benefit?”
'Not even the Church of England is safe'
Bone cited as “most extraordinary” one statement from the Commission’s ruling on the Plymouth Brethren case - “There is no presumption that religion generally, or at any more specific level, is for the public benefit, even in the case of Christianity or the Church of England.”
“There we have it,” Bone said, “not even the Church of England is safe.”
He continued: “I am reminded of the poem ‘First they came’, describing the persecution of different groups, in darker times. Today it could be amended to read: ‘First they came for the Plymouth Brethren and I did not speak out because I was not a Brethren. Then they came for the Evangelical Church and I did not speak out because I was not an Evangelical. Then they came for the Catholic Church and I did not speak out because I was not a Catholic. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me’.”
Bone warned that if the presumption of charitable status for religious bodies is not restored, the consequences will be detrimental to the “very fabric of our society”.
It is an “almightly mess”, he concluded, and for a change it has not been caused by either the Liberal Democrats or the European Union, but by the “creeping secularism in society”.
*Editor's note: The Charity Commission has asked us to point out that the decision that there is no presumption that religion is for the public benefit was made by the Upper Tribunal, not by the Commission. Peter Bone MP has been made aware of his misattribution.