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The case for an end to religious privilege

By Moira Clarke - posted Monday, 26 November 2012


It would be difficult, at this stage, for anyone to deny that the perpetuation and cover-ups of the sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults is entrenched and systemic in certain religious institutions within Australia. It would be equally difficult to deny that the Catholic Church, ostensibly one of Australia's leading 'charities', is disproportionately involved. Evidence for this has existed for years, but only now have our political leaders agreed to a Royal Commission, and only under the pressure of overwhelming public outrage.

Almost as recently, the Australian Parliament has passed a piece of legislation that has received much less fanfare. The Australian Charities and Not for Profit Commission (ACNC) was established on 1st November of this year. Its purpose is to simplify and regulate the charities and not-for-profit sector at the national level. Since religious institutions fall under this umbrella they, too, are affected by this legislation.

At this point in time, a charity is defined at common law and largely based on the preamble to the Statute of Elizabeth, passed by the English Parliament in 1601. One of the first tasks of the ACNC will be to introduce a statutory definition of charity; however, the Australian Tax Office, being a de facto regulator of charities, has already delivered its definition in October of last year, and there is little likelihood that the ACNC will take a different approach or that this will change in subsequent reviews.

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The involvement of the ATO will come as a surprise to some Australians. They might be interested to learn that one of the ATO's definitions of 'charity' is the 'advancement of religion', contrary to submissions that argue otherwise. As a result, it will remain the case that any trust fund or institution whose purpose is to promote religion, irrespective of any tangible social benefit, can still expect to receive a range of tax exemptions. These include fringe benefits tax, GST, stamp duty, land tax, company and capital gains tax, car registration fees and municipal rates.

Wherever somebody avoids tax, somebody else has to make up the difference. That somebody is the Australian public. As a case in point, this has led to rates for ordinary property owners being 10% higher in one council, due to church-owned land being exempt. Then there is the question of those commercial enterprises that a religious organisation owns or operates. Sanitarium, for example, is owned by the Seventh Day Adventists, themega-church Hillsong owns a music publishing and recording business, and Gloria Jean's is owned by Hillsong members who have in the past donated profits, free of tax, to the controversial Mercy Ministries and theAustralian Christian Lobby. Businesses owned by religious institutions have traditionally operated free of company tax, and have been eligible for exemption from FBT and GST concessions. In addition to lost revenue, such businesses enjoy an unfair commercial advantage over their competitors.

As part of the ACNC overhaul, the new UBIT (Unrelated Business Income Tax) will target commercial activities owned by NFPs for those enterprises commencing from May 2011. While this is a welcome improvement, in practice the transition for existing businesses could take years. Furthermore, the legislation is likely to be complex and it is unclear at this stage how businesses whose earnings are directed towards the organisation's 'altruistic' purposes will be affected. The problem, here, is that the 'advancement of religion'-- whether Scientology, the Exclusive Brethren, Hillsong, the Adelaide street preachers or the Catholic Church -- is still considered to be an altruistic endeavour.

The cost of all this? An estimated $31B per annum, revenue withheld from a nation that is struggling to fund a public education system in crisis as evidenced by the Gonski report, the sorely needed National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), and whose infrastructure, public health facilities and other social services are desperately in need of funding. It is significant that the government, while struggling to bring the budget back into surplus, still feels the need to tread ever so softly around this issue.

As an Australian taxpayer, I protest.

I protest the protection of churches that, even while professing horror at the degree of institutionalised child abuse, deception and cover-ups allegedly at the core of their institutions, and even while promising reform, have allegedly been complicit in the intimidation and silencing of victims, and via the Ellis Defence have gone to considerable lengths to avoid culpability, even to the point of continuing to fund the legal defences of previously and repeatedly convicted paedophiles.

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I protest the level of power enjoyed by a religious organisation whose doctrine has recently led to the death of an innocent woman in Ireland, one among thousands.

I protest that our government still respects an institution that wilfully exacerbates poverty and hardship in the third world, as evidenced by its response to the push for birth control in the Philippines and elsewhere.

I protest that Australians must still support a church that has attempted to boycott the renowned human rights organisation, Amnesty International. Incredibly, this behaviour is in response to Amnesty's shift in policy towards the support for decriminalisation of abortion for rape victims, particularly with reference to war zones, including Darfur and the DRC. Just for the record, AI is unfortunately not a pro-choice movement and this was never about abortion on demand.

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About the Author

Moira Clarke is a software engineer and is also on the committee of the Secular Party of Australia. Her main interest is human rights.

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All articles by Moira Clarke

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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