Humanism, education, equality and mutual understanding: BHA celebrates its new charitable Objects

13 October, 2011

Following a long campaign to have the advancement of non-religious beliefs for the public benefit accepted as a charitable Object, the BHA is delighted finally to have achieved this goal and to announce its new charitable objects. The new Objects sit above the BHA’s Aims and although they are – by necessity – written in the sort of legalistic language which is not always the most inspirational, they represent an excellent consolidation of the BHA’s work. The revised Objects are:

4.1.1. The advancement of Humanism, namely a non-religious ethical lifestance the essential elements of which are a commitment to human wellbeing and a reliance on reason, experience and a naturalistic view of the world;

4.1.2. The advancement of education and in particular the study of and the dissemination of knowledge about humanism and about the arts and science as they relate to humanism;

4.1.3. The promotion of equality and non-discrimination and the protection of human rights as defined in international instruments to which the United Kingdom is party, in each case in particular as relates to religion and belief;

4.1.4. The promotion of understanding between people holding religious and non-religious beliefs so as to advance harmonious cooperation in society.

The background to our campaign

The law on charity dates back to 1601, with court decisions on whether an organisation is eligible for the legal and tax status of a charity depending on analogies with the types of activity listed in the preamble to the Statute of Charitable Uses of that year. In the nineteenth century a judge categorised charities into four categories (relief of poverty, advancement of education, advancement of religion – and the others!).

Advancement of non-religious beliefs

In 2005, the Government produced a Charities Bill with a new thirteen-fold categorisation, with the last still a catch-all ‘other purposes’. Over five years of consultations, correspondence and meetings the BHA argued that the Human Rights Act and equality law (which makes differential treatment of people on the ground of religious and non-religious beliefs unlawful) should mean that the advancement of non-religious beliefs was just as charitable in theory as the advancement of other beliefs. Until that happened, humanist organisations could win charity status only by qualifying under some other head, such as education. Attempts to amend the Bill by humanists in the House of Commons and House of Lords were unsuccessful and once the Charities Act 2006 became law, the BHA turned its attention to the Charity Commission and it is as a result of work with the Commission that the new Objects have been agreed.

Public benefit

The Charities Act 2006 also extended to all charities, including religious ones, the need to be able to demonstrate that they produce ‘public benefit’. This concept is legally complex and the Charity Commission consulted at the time on draft guidance on how it would be applied. The BHA made substantial submissions on this question and had meetings at a high level with the Commission, but the resulting guidance remained unsatisfactory, both in seeming to relax the rigour of the law for religious charities and in its definition of what counts as a ‘religion’ – a definition that anyway under the Human Rights Act should have no place in law. This continues to be of concern, but without any new legislative or policy developments on the horizon, is an issue that may not be resolved for some time.

In the meantime, the BHA is delighted with its new Objects, which represent a considerable legal advance for fair treatment of religious and non-religious organisations.