Essay:Should God Run Public Amenities?

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I'd like to examine the role of the religious in the provision of public services, normally through a charitable organisation. I have written this from a European perspective, so most examples provide herein are drawn from the Europe.

Religious belief may motivate people to voluntarily offer assistance, but those same beliefs often carry with them certain caveats. An example of this would be a Catholic-run adoption service that refuses to allow otherwise suitable homosexual couples to adopt children.[1]


What is a public service?[edit]

I'd like to begin with some definitions. By public service, I'm referring to essential public services. Here are some examples:

  • Education (children and adults)
  • Healthcare (ranging from hospitals to counselling services)
  • Social welfare (assistance to socially disadvantaged groups, such as the homeless and the unemployed)

This is not a full list, but it details the primary areas in which charities and volunteers would provide assistance. I specifically exclude purely religious services from this list. Some services, such as education and healthcare, would be considered essential services that the state would otherwise provide. Other services, such as home visitors for the elderly or the provision of accommodation for parents visiting hospitalised children are not per se essential, but certainly valuable to society.

How are these groups funded?[edit]

Funding for religious organisation providing services comes from three main sources:

  • Donations (individuals or organisations, such as corporations and other charities)
  • Direct governmental subsidy
  • Tax benefits (exemption, or reduced taxes due to charitable status)

Some essential services are handed over almost entirely to religious charities, although this is rare. The overwhelming majority of Irish primary schools (up to the age of 12) are run by the Catholic Church[2]. The government pays the church to provide education, in the same way that privatised services are subsidised by the state. This doesn't mean that the state covers the entire cost of running the service. Some services are maintained through a mix of donations and government assistance, whether that be through direct subsidy, or tax benefits.

Tax benefits are not a direct state subsidy, but they do amount to charities being given a discount on their running costs. To provide an example; charities in the United Kingdom do not pay value added tax (a consumption tax levied on most purchases). This increases the buying power of charities, saving them 17.5% of the cost on many purchases. Charitable status limits the ways in which money can be spent, although this doesn't prevent some prominent U.S. evangelists from drawing a healthy salary from their churches. Depending on the activities of the charity in question, this amounts to the government providing financial assistance in their proselytisation efforts.

The benefits[edit]

Religious participation in the provision of services is certainly not without its benefits. Some religions encourage their adherents to provide charitable services to those around them. At a basic level, a local church may provide social facilities for local children. Personally I've benefited from this in the form of a social club, in which there was no proselytising or any other obvious religious agenda. In Cork Ireland, the charity Share sends collectors out each Christmas to solicit for donations to assist in the provision of housing and support for the elderly poor.[3].

The state may be unable or unwilling to provide some services, and this is where charities and individual volunteers can fill a gap. It is worth noting that the English school system grew from schools founded by religious organisations, with proper state involvement only beginning in the 19th century.

The downsides[edit]

The main problem with religious involvement in the provision of services is that some religions are unable to reconcile belief and dogma with human rights. Earlier I mentioned the example of the Catholic Church in the UK, who run a nationwide adoption service. Adopting a child in to a loving home is one of the most amazing things that a couple can do. Perhaps it's only parents who'll appreciate the expense and effort required to raise a child, but we must remember that some of these children come from unstable backgrounds, so the challenge is even greater for adoptive parents. The problem with the Catholic-run service, is that their dogma does not sit well with the idea of homosexual couples adopting children, yet this runs contrary to the Equality Act of 2007[4]. The Archbishop of Glasgow has warned that forcing Catholic adoption agencies to serve homosexual couples will result in their closure[5]. There may be some sympathy for their view, but is this any different to hanging a "No niggers, and no Irish" sign above their doors? Their position is based entirely on faith and dogma, since they cannot point to any evidence that homosexuals are unsuited to the raising of children. If the raising of a child requires a traditional family, then why do we not take children away from single-parents, placing them with adoptive couples?

To refer back to the example of Irish schools, what choice to parents have if they wish for a child to have an entirely secular education, or one with an emphasis on a non-Christian religion? Irish primary schools are by no means given over to religious fundamentalism, but still the education is provided with a Christian slant. Schools in the UK are legally obliged to perform a daily "act of worship", often by gathering in a large hall to say prayers or sing hymns. This is because the UK has no clear separation of church and state, unlike the U.S. At best, A Jew would excuse themselves from the gathering (with parental consent) and make their own arrangements.

Is discrimination acceptable?[edit]

To answer this question, we need to consider two further questions:

  • Is this an essential service, of the kind outlined in the definitions?
  • Is this service being state funded (donations or tax breaks)

Is the running of religious ceremonies a service essential to society? I'd have to say no, since Christianity does not generally require public worship. In Matthew 6:5-8, Jesus advises the following (my emphasis added):

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Catholic dogma is problematic, in that it requires followers to use the appointed clergy as a middle-man between the worshipper and God. Examples of this would include baptism, confession, and holy communion. It's difficult for a Catholic to remain a Catholic while opting out of these activities, but Catholicism is ultimately a choice - like the decision to join a William Shatner appreciation society. Other Christian denominations allow greater flexibility, and place a greater emphasis on a personal relationship with God. A good Christian of most denominations carries their church with them wherever they go, and they have no need for organised public displays of devotion. Wouldn't Jesus be an authority on this kind of thing?

In the case of a religious organisation (or William Shatner's appreciation society), membership is entirely unessential and optional. For this reason, I see no need for them to be forced to apply the same rules of equality expected from an organisation effectively being paid to perform a public service. One can run a privately financed tax-playing social club by discriminatory rules, but it does not follow that such rules can be applied when interacting with society as a whole. It's worth noting that in order to register as a charity in England and Wales, an organisation must demonstrate a public benefit[6], and deliver services in accordance with the Human Rights Act.


Religious groups can play an important role in the provision of services, but it can be difficult to deliver these services when constrained by dogma and belief that would run contrary to any secular and rational definition of human rights. It's questionable that religions receive tax benefits for anything, but certainly when providing essential services they should provide the same level of equality we'd expect from a state-run organisation. Even without state support, these organisations must be subject to the same equality laws that all organisations should be following. It's reasonable to expect that true equality is not always possible, since a man would struggle to counsel female rape victims, but there is a rational and realistic reason for this. Male and female weightlifters are separated in competitions, because science has established musculoskeletal differences between the genders.

Equality denied for reasons of religion is unjust, and cannot be allowed, even when a religious group is ostensibly delivering a service of benefit to society. Religious groups, we appreciate and applaud your charity, but we don't appreciate the strings you attach to your good works.