On Becoming a Charity: The UK Pagan Federation

Heather Greene —  December 9, 2012 — 32 Comments

In November the media, along with The Wild Hunt, reported that The Charity Commission for Wales and England declined the The Pagan Federation’s request for charity status in the UK. Upon hearing the unfortunate news, I worked with my fellow Covenant of the Goddess Board members to offer support, “across the pond,” to those diligently working to achieve that coveted status.  As a result, I had the pleasure of corresponding with the president of The Pagan Federation, Chris Crowley. Our brief exchange gave me a much better understanding of the situation and I present my findings to you.

Pagan Federation

In a letter dated October 4, 2012,  The Charity Commission for Wales and England, a government organization charged with the regulation of all charity organizations, informed The Pagan Federation  that its application for charity status had been rejected. The Commission summed up its reasoning with the following statement:

“The commission is not satisfied that The Pagan Federation is established for exclusively charitable purposes.”

To reach a decision, the Commission brought in senior level advisors to evaluate The Pagan Federation’s application.  Under the Charities Act of 2006, all religious organizations must, like any other, prove to be a benefit to the general public or, as they say “advancing religion for public benefit.” Previously most religious organizations were exempt from these criteria.

It is not enough that an organization does something in the name of religion in order for it to be a charity advancing religion. It has to be shown that the aim of the organization is to advance the religion in a way that is for the public benefit, and not to further some other, non-charitable, aim. (The Advancement of Religion for Public Benefit, section C4)

The Pagan Federation felt its application established legitimacy as a non-profit, community-based religious organization that worked for public benefit. Its listed programs include community service, sponsorship of workshops, rituals and festivals, prison ministry, hospital visitations, Inter-faith outreach, and public awareness. In Scotland, where hand-fasting or wedding ceremonies are legally recognized, Pagan Federation clergy perform marriage rites.

In our interview, Chris Crowley explained:

The Pagan Federation was founded 40 years ago. Initially, it was set up to counter negative publicity concerning Witchcraft, primarily, and other Pagan Paths….From the 1980s onwards, however, we expanded our remit to also campaign actively for Pagan rights for all Pagans and also to become a contact network… We have had some success in establishing positive working relationships with some government departments. The most significant of these is the Justice Ministry who invited us, in the 1990s, to set up a prison ministry service to administer to Pagans in prison. It is still running very successfully. 

40th Anniversary Pagan FederationLater he added, “[Last year] we had a 40th Anniversary celebration in London which included a conference and a tree planting of 40 trees.” The entire event attracted 4-500 attendees, both Pagan and non-Pagan alike.

So where’s the problem?  While the Commission did acknowledge the Federation’s positive public work, the application seems to have gotten stuck in a quagmire of religious semantics. In the Charities Act of 2006 and UK Charity law, “religion” is defined as such:

[A] belief system involves belief in a god (or gods) or goddess (or goddesses), or supreme being, or divine or transcendental being or entity or spiritual principle, which is the object or focus of the religion (referred to in this guidance as ‘supreme being or entity’)  (The Advancement of Religion for Public Benefit, Section C1)

Specifically, section 2 of the Charities Act states that the term ‘religion’ “includes a religion which involves a belief in more than one god, and a religion which does not involve a belief in a god.”  It goes on to say:

The intention of the legislation was to make clear that religions that involve belief in more than one god and those that do not involve a belief in a god are included within the meaning of religion derived from existing case law. ) (The Advancement of Religion for Public Benefit, Section C1)

These statutes do take into account polytheistic practices. In fact, these are the laws that allowed The Druid Network to earn charity status in 2010. They were the first faith-based, Pagan organization to achieve this type of public recognition.

Charity CommissionHowever, in the case of The Pagan Federation, the Commission appears to be befuddled by the term:  Pagan.  Where “Druidry” defines a small subset of Pagan religious beliefs, Paganism itself is an umbrella term for a much broader group of religious practices that have no clearly delineated guidelines, no dogma or required practices.  The Commission feels that the term “Pagan” describes a “philosophy or way of life,” rather than a religion.

In its report, the Commission expressed a real concern over the fluid and dynamic nature of Pagan tradition and practice.  Responding to the concept of solitary practice and the Wiccan Rede, “an ye harm none, do what ye will,” the Commission remarked, “It appears that individuals are free to develop their own guidelines.”

Without the easily identifiable structure of monotheistic religions, Paganism and its organizations are a mystery to outsiders, even to those government officials who, like the Commission, appear to be making allowances for alternative religions.  Belinda Winder, Vice President of The Pagan Federation, told a Third Sector reporter:

“The first time we approached the commission, 15 years ago, one of its officials asked us if we sacrifice humans. I think we have come an awful long way in public understanding since then.”  (The Third Sector)

The Druid NetworkWith the language set forth in the Charities Act of 2006 and the success of The Druid Network, there’s hope for The Pagan Federation.

In November the Federation made its first appeal to a Charity Tribunal, part of the UK court system that answers annually to Parliament. I asked Chris why the organization is willing to go through this difficult fight knowing the potential cost in both time and money.  Aside from the tax breaks, he explained:

Mainly, [we will] achieve recognition as a valid religious and spiritual path and…have the same legal rights as, and parity with, other religions and…take our rightful place as part of the richly diverse community that lives in these islands.

Under the current conditions The Pagan Federation can only, as Chris notes, “represent individuals if they feel they have been victimized or unfairly discriminated against on a case by case basis.”  There is no uniformity in practice or legislation to fall back on.  UK Pagans are left out in the cold.  Fortunately, as Chris remarked, The Pagan Federation will “not give up and keep hammering away” until it can proudly stand as a recognized charitable Pagan organization.

 Pagan Federation International

Additional Note:  The Pagan Federation operates throughout the UK  It also has many international chapters, including one in the U.S.A.  To learn more about the organization outside of the United Kingdom, go to its international website.

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Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer and Pagan spirit living in the Deep South. She is currently National Public Information Officer for Covenant of the Goddess and worked extensively with Lady Liberty League. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History with a background in the performing and visual arts.
  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=802910152 Anthony Hart-Jones

    I think, unpopular as the position is, that the charity commission was right to point out that paganism doesn’t fulfil the criteria for a religion according to their definition. On the other hand, it’s hard to argue that they are not doing a valuable job and deserve recognition for their charitable work.

    Given the PF lawyers’ combined legal experience, I am fairly sure they’ll find a way of reconciling the letter and the spirit of the law here.

  • Mike Stygal

    Many thanks for this, Heather. Our attemots to gain charity status have been a little frustrating. However, as Chris says, we’ll not give up and we WILL gain our charity status. :)

    • ChristopherBlackwell

      Considering that they are applying for charity status, which they would seem to meet by the service they do, I am fascinated that they are refused for not being a single religion. I wonder if other interfaith groups face this problem.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        Interesting question.

        Do interfaith groups claim to be religions, or do they just go the charity route?

        • ChristopherBlackwell

          Leoht,

          It just might be time to see if others interfaith groups do.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Agreed. I don’t think they would, as they are more facilitators of conversation between the different faiths, rather than being one, themselves.

            I don’t see why the religious aspect is even relevant to the PFs application, since there are plenty of charities out there that are not religions.

  • Mike Stygal

    Many thanks for this Heather. Our attempts to gain charity status have been a lttle frustrating. However, as Chris says, we won’t give up and we WILL gain our charity status. :)

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I’m almost tempted to use a different screen-name for this comment because it’s so unlike what you usually get from me.
    What screams at me about this case is that it underscores in purple the superiority of the American provision for protection of religions, viz, the First Amendment.
    Evidently, in the UK, the Commission can make religions jump through arbitrary hoops, and Parliament can mint new hoops whenever it wants. There seems to be no touchstone of implied fundamental sectarian equality, like the word “religion” in the US First Amendment, to which appeal can be made.
    I allow myself one jingoistic comment a year; this was it.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    Should the PF be granted Charitable Status? Yes. I think that is a no brainer.

    Should it be viewed as a religion? No. I think it is very important to make a distinction between umbrella organisations, such as the Pagan Federation, and actual religions, such as Wicca or Ásatrú.

    The Pagan Federation may represent a group of minority religions and their practitioners, but it is in no way a religion itself.

    It wasn’t until a few years ago, for example, that the Pagan Fed removed certain creed-specific clauses from its constitution.

    • cernowain greenman

      Leoht, Hinduism is an umbrella term for many different religions that thrive in the Indian subcontinent. And if Hinduism is accepted as a “religion”, and therefore, so can “Paganism”.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        But, if I am not much mistaken, the various forms of Hinduism share a pantheon. The ‘Pagan’ religions do not. In fact, there are many (a growing number) people that could be identified as ‘Pagan’ by most definitions that refuse to self identify as such.

        • cernowain greenman

          Not sure I agree totally with you. There is plenty of pantheon sharing going around in Paganism. And while there are many who wouldn’t choose the Pagan moniker, all those who support the Pagan Federation actually do.

          • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

            There has always been lots of “pantheon sharing” going on, as the people who give us the word “pantheon”, ie, the Hellenes, demonstrate quite well. The idea that there were ever neatly separable Pagan groups with their own exclusive pantheon unrelated to what the people next door were doing is completely without any basis in actual history.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Indeed, but at the same time, I don’t think that the average Asatruar has anything more in common with the average Hindu than they have in common with the average Hellenes.

          • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

            But if we focus on what they do have in common? It turns out to be quite a lot – which is why we have the whole field of “Indo-European Studies” in the first place.

            In fact, many people who are hard-core reconstructionists of Germanic, or Slavic, or Baltic, or fill-in-the-blank, feel a very strong affinity for both modern and ancient Vedic Hinduism.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            In which case, why not just call it all aspects of Hinduism?

            Categorisation is based on differences, after all.

          • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

            Categorization is based on both similarities and differences.

            And the suggestion to “call it all aspects of Hinduism” actually has far more merit than you might think. Because, you see, for many “Hindus” the preferred term is “Sanatana Dharma” which is essentially just Sanskrit for “The Old Religion”.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Oh, there is plenty of pantheon sharing, especially in the more eclectic forms, but my point was more that Hindus have a Hindu pantheon. There is not one distinct Pagan pantheon.

  • Johnny Rapture

    It seems relevant to bring up the book “The Impossibility of Religious Freedom” by W. Sullivan. It charts out (in an American context) similar issues that have arisen over what does — and does not — count as “religion” or “religious.” (http://press.princeton.edu/titles/7977.html)

    • cernowain greenman

      Something seems wrong with your link, JR.

  • Morri

    You know…if you were to scrutinize the “mainstream” religions in the same manner as they have the Pagan Fed, you’d come up with a questionable result. What exactly do they do for the greater public good, again?

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

    Paganism was a religion thousands of years before Christianity even existed. However, the theology of Christianity does not recognizd the possibility of “other” religions – for any “religion” other than Christianity is not really a religion at all, but rather a deception of Satan.

    And even when Christians deign to recognize the existence of other religions (which they only do for PR reasons, it must be stipulated) they insist on sitting in judgement as to which other religions are to be accepted as “real” – and this, of course, is judged on the basis of how closely another religion is thought to resemble Christianity.

    And then there is the issue that Christian charities are not really charities at all – but rather just thinly disguised (if that!) missionary operations.

    • Deborah Bender

      I have to disagree with your last statement. Christian charities vary a lot. Some of them do as you say. Others do not proselytize at all; they figure that setting a good example is enough. I’ve had good care in a Catholic hospital; there were no crucifixes within sight. Catholic Charities has a good rep for providing human services and get hired by city governments for that reason. They have come into conflict with the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for their personnel policies, but not for the way they interact with clients. Next to New Orleans, San Francisco is probably the least Christian city in the United States.

      Sometimes it’s even the other way around. I’ve talked to people who belong to a local Protestant congregation not out of interest in religion, but because that church does a lot to help local poor people. The county I live in, though wealthy, does not provide any government supported homeless shelter. A consortium of local churches and synagogues houses the homeless in the wintertime. The unchurched people don’t want to pay for a homeless shelter and they definitely don’t want one in their own neighborhood.

  • Guest

    I’m just wondering if there are any organizations in the UK that have been granted charitable status with non-denominational terms in their names such as “Christian” (Are they Anglican or another denomination?) or “God” (Which god? This term merely implies monotheism.) If a group with a generic name such as “God’s People” applied showing the same sort of activities as the Pagan Federation, would they be turned down as well for being too broad and not a definitive religion?

    Just sayin. If the commission wants to apply this standard, maybe someone should go through the list of organizations that have been approved and make sure their religions are specific enough to qualify.

    • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

      Several of the “charities” listed here appear to fit that description:
      http://www.charitychoice.co.uk/charities/religious/christian

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      You will find that the capitalisation of the word ‘god’ is generally read as a name rather than as a designation, thus implying YHWH.

      Christi-normative society for you.