The West Country branch of an evangelical Christian movement is to become a test case for legislation which could strip thousands of religious groups of their charitable status.
Preston Down Trust, which runs meeting halls for the non-conformist Exclusive Brethren in Torquay, Paignton and Newton Abbot, is fighting exclusion under the Charities Act.
The group, with Horsforth Gospel Hall Trust in Leeds, has lodged an appeal with the charity tribunal against the Charity Commission.
Thousands of churches and religious groups could lose their status unless they admit non-believers to their services, in what critics have branded an attack on religious freedom. The case could determine how far the commission is allowed to influence religious practice in faith organisations.
Under Labour’s 2006 charity law, more than 3,500 religious groups that did not previously have to register as charities must do so if they have an income of more than £100,000.
According to the solicitor Stone King, they include 2,200 groups belonging to the Church of England alone.
Colin Hart, director of the Christian Institute, said it was “alarming” the commission was “getting involved in assessing whether they like a particular religious belief, whether they think it has a benefit or disbenefit”.
The non-hierarchical Exclusive Brethren, also known as the Plymouth Brethren, were founded in Dublin in the 1820s. They are distinct from the Open Brethren following a split in the 1840s.
They avoid contact with those who do not follow their teachings, including other Christians, and do not allow non-members to attend their religious services. The 16,000 members in Britain do not use a specific church name and take their inspiration solely from the Bible.
Their case was taken up by Tory MPs including Robert Halfon, MP for Harlow, who called the commission “anti-Christian” in the Commons.
“Christian groups serving the community have a right to charitable status. They should not be subject to politically correct bias,” he said. Sheila Lawlor, director of Politeia, a think tank, said it would soon publish a review by Peter Luxton, a Cardiff University professor, showing how the Charity Commission appears to be acting in contravention of charity law.
The Charity Commission declined to comment in detail because of the pending tribunal case, but said of the Preston Down decision: “We were unable to conclude that the organisation is established for the advancement of religion for public benefit.
“The central issue in the appeal will be whether the public benefit requirement is satisfied in relation to the exclusive Brethren organisations under the law as it now is. [We] took into account the nature of Christian religion embraced by the trust and the means through which this was promoted, including the public access to its services and the potential for its beneficial impact on the wider community.”
It welcomed the tribunal as an “opportunity for the law to be clarified in this area as it affects the Exclusive Brethren”.