Walking a difficult line ─ charity and religion

26 February 2019

JulietChevalierWatts web
Charity law specialist Juliet Chevalier-Watts.

University of Waikato senior law lecturer Juliet Chevalier-Watts is challenging the view that New Zealand is becoming more secular. She says religion appears to be just as important to society as it’s always been.

Ms Chevalier-Watts is a charity law specialist who’s written three books on equity, trusts, and charity law, and is wrapping up a PhD where she reviews religion and charity law. The two concepts are historically and critically bound yet often times demonstrate competing interests and values, she says. “For instance, with regard to their capacity to promote equality and diversity.

“But I argue that charity law is the ideal vehicle to support religion because of the rules surrounding charity law that actually may give confidence to the public that when it comes to charity, religion is not always the tyranny that people might presume it to be.”

Charity law is governed by strict legal principles, and if a charity is registered there are tax benefits and a variety of other privileges. In New Zealand, as in a number of common law jurisdictions, a registered a charity must fit within one of the four heads of charity, and one of those heads is the advancement of religion.

Ms Chevalier-Watts was awarded a scholarship from Hamilton law firm Norris Ward McKinnon to complete her doctoral research, supervised by Sir Grant Hammond and Dame Professor Margaret Wilson.

“What I found was that it is extremely rare for people not to have some kind of belief system, and if you try to remove a system out of society, as occurred in in a number of Communist states, it simply goes underground.  Once religion is permitted again, it flourishes once more.

“So my arguments are that religion is here to stay and in many regards, it is fundamental to society. As a result, it is right that it is recognised, and charity law provides a way of ensuring that religion is acknowledged and also underpinned by stringent governance.

At the same time Ms Chevalier-Watts says there are some high-profile and influential people who denigrate religion, demanding that it should not exist anymore; such stars have been ruthless in their assault on religion, for example, Ricky Gervais, Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins.  “Obviously, people are entitled to be as negative as they wish, and it is perhaps right in a contemporary society that we can challenge beliefs and religions. However, I’m coming at it first from a legal context, and then a societal context, and if you examine the way humans operate, it is apparent that in many ways, humans prefer to operate within a religious construct.”

One of the chapters in her thesis considers a particular secular point of view in relation to religion, that of the economic relevance of religion. She says even those with no interest in religion, or who are militantly anti-religious may develop an understanding as to how important religion is on a purely economic basis. “Globally, religion is worth dollars to the social sector, there’s research underpinning this, and if we were to remove religion, not-for-profit and charitable religions, then states would have to fill those monetary gaps, and that would be detrimental to those states and almost certainly unaffordable.”

She says it may not be long before Jediism is added to the list of registered charities. It’s been rejected once in New Zealand, but the door may open for them to reapply in the future. “If you can demonstrate there’s a public benefit, amongst other legal requirements, then your organisation may apply to the Department of Internal Affairs to be a registered charity.

“And you can’t underestimate the positive role religion can play in people’s lives -- the emotional benefit it gives a lot of people, it can give people identity, save people from loneliness, offer a support system and keep others on the straight and narrow. There’s a halo effect, pardon the pun, and that is hard to measure in economic terms although recognisable when it occurs.”

Juliet Chevalier-Watts is Associate Dean Research at Te Piringa – Faculty of Law at the University of Waikato. Her latest book, Charity Law: International Perspectives was published in December 2018 by Routledge.

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