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Source : 08/04/2004 Northampton Chronicle and Echo

Members of a religious group denied housing benefit because of their communal way of life have lost an appeal against the decision.

The Jesus Fellowship Church, also known as the Jesus Army argued its members in Northamptonshire were being forced to make a stark choice: to abandon the communal living central to their faith or lose their entitlement to thousands of pounds of benefits.

Lawyers for four prominent members of the church spearheading the case argued in London's Court of Appeal that housing benefit rules amounted to 'religious discrimination' and contravened the European Convention on Human rights.

The four church members, John Campbell, Jeffery Hayes, Tina Bradbury and Ase Johannessen, said they were all 'committed to communal living'.

The court heard how they had submitted to stringent 'lifestyle conditions', abandoning their personal property rights, giving all their capital to the church and putting any other cash into a 'common purse'.

They inhabit four Northaptonshire homes, two in Bugbrooke and one each in Nether Heyford and Pattishall.

About 700 members of the church live in 60 or so houses across the UK. Each 'community house' has anything between six and 60 people living as a large 'family'.

But the Appeal Court dashed the church's hopes of providing its members' right to benefits upholding an earlier decision denying entitlement, leaving the church facing huge legal costs.

Judge Sir William Aldous agreed with a decision by social Security Commissioner Edward Jacobs that the tenancy agreements under which people occupied the church's communal homes was 'not made on a commercial basis' and therefore they were not entitled to housing benefit.

Speaking after the appeal hearing, church elder John Campbell described the ruling as 'very disappointing'.

He added: 'unfortunately what we were dealing with was points of law, not common sense.'

'we lost the appeal through a legal technicality, that we are not a commercial organisation and not entitled to housing benefit.'

'It effectively means people who are sick, vulnerable or elderly who have paid taxes and would otherwise have the right to housing benefit are now disqualified because they are living in one of our community houses. We think that's very unfair.'

Though the Jesus Army was refused permission to appeal to the Lords, it has the right to petition the Law Lords directly for a final appeal hearing.

'We will now take advice from our lawyers before deciding what to do next,' said Mr Campbell.

He added: 'I'm afraid this will have a knock-on effect for other Christian groups and movements who will have to prove they are commercial for the purposes of obtaining housing benefit.'