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Plymouth Brethren


The British charity tribunal has given permission for witnesses to give evidence anonymously to a hearing that will consider the appeal of a Plymouth Brethren (formerly Exclusive Brethren) congregation protesting a Charity Commission decision not to grant it charitable status. Some former Brethren members want to testify about the harm they say the Brethren did to them and their families, but to do so anonymously to spare themselves harassment and to prevent family members who remain in the Brethren from being victimized. A representative of the charity solicitors Bates Wells & Braithwaite said there was little case law that would help the tribunal balance evidence of public benefit provided by a charity against evidence of harm it inflicted. “How much harm counteracts how much benefit?” (Third Sector Online, 12/7/12) [IT 4.1 2013] 

Several Labour members of Parliament sponsored a motion congratulating the Charity Commission for its decision to deny charity status to the Exclusive Brethren (now known as Plymouth Brethren), noting, among other things, “the sect’s doctrine of separation, which has divided families and excludes Brethren from society to the extent that members refuse to live in semi-detached houses for fear of contamination from non-Brethren.” There is considerable sentiment in the House of Commons against denying charitable status to the Brethren and similar religious groups. (Civil Society Media, 12/21/12) [IT 4.1 2013] 

Until the Charities Act of 2006, there was a presumption that “advancement of religion” was in itself a public benefit. But the Act removed that presumption and required religious charities, like those with other legally defined charitable purposes, to demonstrate explicitly how their activities made a positive contribution to the community. The difficult challenge now is to determine what constitutes “a positive contribution,” and the Plymouth Brethren situation is a test case. The Commons committee inquiring into the regulation of charities was asked why the Druid Network had charitable status while the Brethren did not. The Commission replied that this was in part because the former did not support events or organizations that were “exclusive.” Supporters of the Brethren now marshal evidence to illustrate Brethren charitable work in the wider community. (Guardian, 1/3/13) [IT 4.1 2013] 

A case involving the Westcountry branch of the Exclusive Brethren (aka Plymouth Brethren) may determine how far the Charity Commission is allowed to influence religious practice in faith organizations. The Brethren, as well as thousands of other religious groups in Britain, face losing their charity status unless they admit nonbelievers to their services. (This is Cornwall, 7/31/12) [IT 3.3 2012]