On becoming a charity: the UK Pagan Federation

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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 U.K. 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 Oct. 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, 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.

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 U.K. 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 two 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 U.K. 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. U.K. 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 U.K. It also has many international chapters, including one in the U.S.  To learn more about the organization outside of the United Kingdom, go to its international website.