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Australia’s taxpayers question more “religious freedom”

By Brian Morris

Philip Ruddock’s “Religious Freedom Review” is of concern to same-sex couples but how will tax-payers respond to more religious privilege for the churches?

For almost 80 per cent of the nation’s households – with incomes less than $200,000 per year – their primary concerns centre on high electricity costs, rising prices, and poor prospects for wage-growth to compensate. The clamour by churches and religious lobbyists for more “religious freedom” will not register on their radar. When pressed, most are aware that people can believe what they wish, and churches already have a well-established authority within society. Why the call for more “freedom”?

Religious institutions have nothing to fear – they are secure in their constitutional right to promote religion, and retain a gilt-edged financial status. But few citizens will recognise the extent to which religious institutions exercise political influence, while retaining much entitlement and privilege.

Why then, would Malcolm Turnbull extend such privileges?

Church leaders have been deeply anxious since same-sex marriage became front-page news three years ago. Throughout the extended public debate, and during the ‘postal survey’, assorted Christian lobbies complained of restricted ‘rights’ to speak out against gay marriage.

But the public have been misled by calls for greater ‘religious freedom’. The core agenda for lobbyists, religious leaders, and some parliamentarians is to gain new exemptions from anti-discrimination laws. Central to it all is a demand for all marriage celebrants – religious and civil – to refuse to marry gay couples, and for devout business owners in the marriage industry to deny retail services to gay couples.

To enable Marriage Act amendments to pass – and as a sop to his conservative LNP – Malcolm Turnbull established the ‘Religious Freedom Review’, headed by former Liberal minister Philip Ruddock.

Precisely what additional entitlements are to be conjured up by this Ruddock Review, and what does this say about the political influence of Christian lobbyists in a secular democracy?

“Freedom” has nothing to do with it. What they desire in not freedom – which is enshrined in our constitution – but rather the American concept of ‘religious liberty’ to discriminate further against the LGBTI community, and to others who do not share their interpretations of the Old Testament.

This may well come back to haunt the Prime Minister if, as expected, the Ruddock Review delivers recommendations that acquiesce to the polarising agenda from the Christian lobby. Such discriminatory ideas are alien to 78 per cent of the population who, according to a 2016 IPSOS poll, wish to separate religion from the business of government.

Rather than sinking Australia deeper into a ‘soft theocracy’, federal parliament would do better to work seriously towards the separation of Church and State, and begin winding back excessive entitlements of mainstream churches. It would include reassessing the huge sums they avoid in tax, and go a long way to alleviating the financial pressure on the great majority of hard-working Australians.

Since federation, churches of every faith pay no tax, which includes most state and federal taxes – the levies, charges and taxation imposts paid by citizens and businesses. Many of these benefits flow from 17th century English law, giving tax exemptions to the (then) newly formed Church of England. Such largess was based wholly on their charter to “advance religion.” Little has changed.

Religion avoids assessable taxes (excluding genuine charitable works) to the tune of some $20 billion each year – sufficient revenue to fix the budget deficit. All governments ignore this elephant in the room for fear of alienating the churches, but it’s a tempting idea – for hard-working men and women – to have religion finally paying their way, rather than giving them more freedom to discriminate.

Australia is one of the last western countries to have finally removed historical discrimination against the LGBTI community, when we tentatively legalised gay marriage in December last year. So why on Earth would the federal government impose new discriminations – contrived by religious lobbyists – to allow Christians in the marriage industry to refuse retail and other services to same-sex couples?

The safe bet is that Philip Ruddock’s ‘Religious Freedom Review’ will recommend further concessions to benefit a religious community already highly privileged with exemptions from anti-discrimination and taxation laws. But the Ruddock proposals will still need to play out on the floor of parliament, and defeat for the Prime Minister will be costly. That may well happen.

Such an outcome will reinforce the triumph of marriage equality, and throw into stark relief the failure to grant religion further discriminatory rights. It may even flag an end to the ‘age of entitlement’ for churches and embolden enough MPs to think seriously about breaking with 17th century tradition to begin taxing religious profits. Most certainly, that would come as welcome relief to working Australians who continue to subsidise private church enterprises through their hard-earned taxes.

Brian Morris is a founder of The National Secular Lobby. The National Secular Lobby is a newly formed secular organisation promoting ‘secular politics’, the raft of social issues that relate in some way to the Separation of Church and State. Click here to see their aims and objectives.


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  1. OldWomBat

    Didn’t Jesus say “Give what is Caesar’s to Caesar and what is God’s to God.” About time the church businesses complied.

  2. babyjewels10

    Couldn’t agree more, Brian.

  3. Ricardo29

    This is an argument whose (?) day has surely come. The pernicious influence of religion on every level of politics and government has to end. It is not just the tax issue, it is the influence that keeps governments propping up religious schools, and by extension private schools. And more, it is the idea that those who choose to worship have the right to impose those views on those of us, the majority, who don’t believe in sky fairies.

  4. flogga

    ” … with incomes less than $200,000 per year — their primary concerns centre on high electricity costs, rising prices, and poor prospects for wage-growth to compensate”. Surely households with incomes anywhere near to $200k can afford expensive electricity

  5. Jack Russell

    If I was the decider, all religious institutions would be told no.

    No schools, no hospitals, no businesses, no subsidies, no tax exemptions, no voice in secular affairs, no proselytising, no access to children (none at all – for any reason), no licence to conduct legal marriages, no real estate, no confessional immunity, no public displays, no congregational tithes, no privileges, no parasitising, no political expression or lobbying … and on and on …

    Yes to their precious religious freedom … to exist only … but no to everything else.

    It’s time.

  6. John Higgins

    Give me FREEDOM from RELIGION …

  7. Miriam English

    I think this whole religious “freedom” crap will hurt the churches really badly. I’m surprised more religious people don’t see the dangers.

    Firstly, if you allow religious people to be horrible to those they don’t like, it only takes a little bit of history to know where that’s headed. Catholics hate Protestants, Protestants hate Catholics, Christians hate Muslims, Muslims hate Christians, they all seem to hate the Jews. Imagine what will happen when religious “freedom” laws take the brakes off all that hate. Sure, LGBT people will be the first casualties, but the flames will rapidly widen.

    Secondly, people have been growing ever impatient with religious nonsense. The pedophilia scandals have left a very dark stain on all the churches. Atheism is on the rise as people realise that there’s actually no good reason to believe in primitive myths. Churches are gradually being abandoned. As their congregations shrink, some have taken to becoming more vocal and offensive, but they don’t realise that this only speeds the demise of the church. This religious “freedom” bullshit is part of that. They will only succeed in making more people lose any respect for the church.

    So I think even if the extremists win in their push for religious “freedom” they will lose, because it will do irretrievable damage to the church. So either way, we secular Australians win… in the long run.

  8. Max Gross

    Let’s give demented god-botherers something to really whine about: TAX the bastards!

  9. Aortic

    As the wise Seneca once wisely said, ” Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false and by the rulers as useful”

  10. Harry

    Brian, I agree with the notion that religious institutions should not be exempt from taxes but not to “fund federal spending” or to “fix the deficit”. Please refer to John Kelly’s illuminating article on this site yesterday.

  11. Matters Not

    Perhaps Ruddock et al could go back to basics and decide whether or not Jesus was divine? Given that’s a very important question for the religious, perhaps a trip to Nicea might be in order in order to get the flavour.

    Jesus was as eternally divine as the Father, said one camp led by the Archbishop Alexander of Alexandria. Another group, named the Arians after their leader Arius the preacher, saw Jesus as a remarkable leader, but inferior to the Father and lacking in absolute divinity.

    … In a savvy move that would put today’s shrewd politicians to shame, the compromise proffered by Constantine was vague, but blandly pleasing: Jesus and God were of the same “substance,” he suggested, without delving too much into the nature of that relationship. A majority of the bishops agreed on the compromise and voted to pass the language into doctrine.

    Their statement of compromise, which would come to be known as “The Nicene Creed,” formed the basis for Christian ideology. The bishops also used the Council of Nicea to set in stone some church rules that needed clarification, and those canons were the reference point after which all future laws were modeled.

    Maybe we will have the Council of Canberra which will offer new insights?


  12. wam

    Churches are businesses and like many other business do not pay tax. Is that not the norm?

    The list of religious private school graduates in politics would far outstrip those in any other business. Any religion worried? not from the people on my facebook.

    Love the idea that people are waking up to the excesses of religion. I was so certain that people wouldn’t vote for trump that I only put $20 on him. Prior I knew people wouldn’t vote for the rabbott but he was unbackable in 2013.

  13. Miriam English

    Harry, taxing the church would enable more spending by the government because pulling more money out of the economy makes room for the government to spend more. True, it’s not exactly the same thing as funding more spending, but the difference is moot.

    The extra tax money from the churches would fix the (entirely artificial) deficit if the government didn’t increase their spending and didn’t lower other taxes.

    However, contrary to what the government says, getting rid of the deficit is not actually a good thing, because it’s preferable to have a government deficit as opposed to debt in the private sphere. A government deficit is imaginary (they can’t actually owe themselves money) and is the result of spending more on services than they get back in tax. Public debt results from people spending more than they receive, and as all money actually comes from the government, it can be a symptom of the government not putting enough money into the economy, though it can also result from people trying to live beyond their means.

  14. Ralph Seccombe

    Freedom of religion is not absolute but, as stated in article 18 of the International
    Convention on Civil and Political Rights, is subject to such limitations as are prescribed by
    law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals or the fundamental
    rights and freedoms of others. The general position of religion in Australia is that it enjoys
    enormous freedoms and privileges, including in taxation (the advancement of religion being
    treated as one of the heads of charity), prayers in parliament, handouts to church schools
    etc. On the face of it, religious freedom is not under threat, and if any future step towards
    greater religious freedom in taken in law, there is a case for balancing such change with a
    reduction in the privileges enjoyed by religion and religious institutions.
    • Apart from very few necessary restrictions, including against advocacy of violence,
    freedom of speech needs strengthening; blasphemy laws are an anachronism and
    should be abolished.
    • The recent, belated introduction of marriage equality in Australia has been accompanied
    by calls for the preservation of “religious freedom.” Such calls need to be very closely
    examined in the light of the broader principle of equality before the law and freedom
    from discrimination—“the fundamental rights and freedoms of others”.
    • In recent days, prominent clerics have declared that the “sanctity of confession” should
    take precedence over justice and protection for abused children, the effect being that
    child rapists may continue their activities. The law should not tolerate such “religious
    freedom” but should oblige priests to report to the civil authorities, as is now required
    for teachers and others whose work relates to the welfare of children.
    • The “Ellis defence” has allowed religious institutions to escape being sued for abuses
    conducted by their servants. The law should be reformed to make this impossible.
    Second, Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the
    right not to profess any religion or belief. The terms “belief” and “religion” are to be broadly
    construed. This principle (as stated by the UN Human Rights Committee) is often ignored in
    Australia, where, as noted above, religion is frequently privileged over non-religion.
    • This principle has the effect that freedom of religion must include freedom from religion.
    Third, given the obligation of the Expert Panel to consult as widely as it considers
    necessary, I expect that it will consult churches and other religious institutions. Given
    further that article 18 covers non-belief as well as belief as traditionally understood, I
    call on the Panel to approach bodies such as the Atheist Foundation of Australia, the
    Australian Secular Lobby and humanist bodies in Australia. I see this as required by
    article 18 and the obligation of the Panel to conduct its business impartially.

  15. Terry2

    Recently I read about the case of the WA teacher who had attended South Coast Baptist College as a child through its kindergarten, primary and secondary school and had been teaching there for nearly three years. He was outed as a gay man by some of his students and subsequently was dismissed by the school board. Importantly, he still followed the religious principles of his faith and of the school. His sin had been that when outed he had declared himself as a gay man to the school principal.

    Under the poorly named Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) it seems that it is quite legitimate for church groups to discriminate in this way even though the action taken is far from fair.

    Under the FWA legislation discrimination is forbidden against an employee because of the employee’s race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental disability, marital status, family or carer’s responsibilities, pregnancy, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin. So far so good but the same legislation grants an out, what religious groups call a protection .

    The legislation does not prevent the termination of a person’s employment if :
    the person is a member of the staff of an institution that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed—with the proviso that the employment is terminated:

    (i) in good faith; and

    (ii) to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed.

    So, the religious body that sacked this young man will have to prove that, as a matter of good faith they sacked him to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed. I’d like to see that one tested by the High Court of Australia.

    So, I put it to Mr Ruddock that, in a modern democratic society, governed by the rule of law, equity and fairness, it is this type of exemption granted to religious bodies that his expert panel should be seeking to reform and outlaw.

    PS : the first meeting of the Ruddock Expert Panel agreed to publish submissions on line despite the PM’s department being opposed to that. They have also extended the period for submissions from 31 January to 15 February : so far I have not been able to find the site where the submissions are published.

  16. Phil

    The photo of Ruddock pretty well says it all.

    Wasn’t he the Sinister for Immigration in the Rodent government and one of the architects of the Pacific Gulags Policy ?

  17. Diane Larsen

    Religion causes division why do we allow religious organizations exemptions that would not be granted to others, that cause distress and anger in our society. If you wish to observe religious practices do if quietly enjoy your faith but do NOT foist it on to others. Religion has become a business and like other businesses should pay tax

  18. Ken

    Another great article Brian.

  19. townsvilleblog

    Religion is a hangover from primitive mankind where superstition was used to control people, now that religion has been proven to be merely imagination and another way of controlling the masses the time has come for people to take responsibility for their own actions. I agree wholeheartedly with Diane Larsen that Churches and most especially cults, like the Australian Branch of the USA cult, the assembly of god, should be paying income tax on their incomes, and also be forced to have an ABN as all other businesses have, they are in the business of selling hope and fear.

  20. silkworm

    “… how will tax-payers respond to more religious privilege for the churches?”

    I imagine religious tax-payers will love it.

    BTW, have you heard of Modern Monetary Theory? It says that taxes do not pay for spending, only for controlling inflation.

    P.S. The deficit doesn’t need “fixing.” That’s like saying we are spending too much.

  21. Jack Russell

    Perfect Miriam … exactly how I think of that creature!

  22. diannaart

    Hopefully this exercise in mollifying the bottomless pit of demands and privileges that is organised religion, will, at least, provide enough rope to hang religious parasites. I know I am dreaming.

  23. Miriam English

    diannart, I don’t think you’re dreaming. I think this effort to further privilege an already unreasonably over-privileged group will speed their demise. It may even stir up cries of “Tax the church!” in the general population, as it is here. One thing is certain: it is already reducing respect for religion, thus taking their power away, even as they seek further powers.

    The extremists are fools. They are the the means of their own eventual defeat; they hasten their own demise.

    Think of it this way: most people pay the church little heed, except when there are more pedophilia scandals. Recently the extremists forced their nastiness upon the Australian public with a compulsory and unnecessary vote, the answer to which was already known, but which the extremists campaigned heavily to change, using a whole lot of hateful and divisive advertisements. Now, while that’s still fresh in everybody’s memory, the same bunch of extremists pop up again, bringing attention to all the unreasonable extra powers they already have, saying that they need more powers in order to further persecute LGBT people.

    The Australian population doesn’t like to be bothered with these things and is still pissed at being forced to an unnecessary vote. Does anybody genuinely think they’ll react happily to a bunch of annoying, bigoted god-botherers demanding more powers to be horrible to our friends, family members, co-workers?

    If the extremists had shut up and quietly conceded defeat they might manage okay, but they way they’re acting I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a widespread movement to clip the buggers’ wings and force them to behave — taxing the stinkers, removing subsidies for religious schools, removal of their ability to circumvent anti-discrimination law, strengthening laws against religion influencing politics. It’s unlikely to be all those, but I expect they will come under pressure to lose some, especially if Ruddock’s biased “inquiry” succeeds in letting extremists to be even nastier to fellow Australians.

    They are their own worst enemy.

  24. townsvilleblog

    Miriam and Jack have the right idea in my humble opinion. It’s time for this foolishness ‘religious freedom’ to be banned from our civilized society. They, the religious zealots can choose to follow like sheep as long as their particular organization pays taxes on its incomes. I have taken the 10 commandments seriously all my life, which means, to me, that I try to be fair with everyone I meet. However this religious rubbish needs to be consigned to the past, with steam engines and horse and buggy.

    How can someone living in the 21st century believe in such rot, it beggars belief, they told me at primary school that heaven was higher than the sky, then when man went to the moon, they changed the story to heaven being all around us but in another dimension, what rubbish. All we have is a short stay on this planet and try like buggery to leave something for your children to help them through their journey through this unfair uncompromising life, and hopefully if we live long enough to see grandchildren try to provide something for them too, because Christ knows its not getting any easier to survive, year on year.

  25. diannaart

    Thanks Miriam

    I have to live in hope and I didn’t need some toss-pot telling me I am a ‘Pollyanna’ for my dream of the religious mafia wind up with bullet holes in the feet hanging out of their mouths – interesting visual I would really like to see.

    They (religious mafia) really don’t want anyone being too different from them do they?

    Have just been listening to Cory (self-righteous) Bernardi attempting to justify his top 100 Australian songs he has set up on Spotify. According to Cory, this is not political even though it is clearly a knee-jerk response to Triple J decision (made after taking a poll on their listeners) to move the air play of their Top 100 hits to the 27th of January. I am quite sure Cory was completely unaware of the Triple J countdown before Triple J went maverick.

    While Cory claims he has paid for his Spotify account out of his personal money (although he did not say so in such direct terms), he referenced his own political party “The Conservative Party” when he could’ve just called it Cory’s top 100 Australian hits. Sheesh.

    Well at least he has managed to publicise Triple j – hoping the ratings kick goals.

  26. silkworm

    The concept of religious rights is misleading. What are we really talking about? The rights of individuals to believe what they want or the right of institutions, effectively corporations, to practise what they want? Surely if religious rights are about anything, they are about individual rights, but then wouldn’t this just come under “freedom of thought”? What’s the big deal then? No, those who advocate for “religious freedom” are playing with words. Their real intention is to advocate for the increasing power of religious institutions to attack the rights of non-religious individuals.

  27. Miriam English

    silkworm, that’s is what most people think, but I think it’s more insidious than that. By disarming anti-discrimination law where religion is concerned they open the door to anybody being able to do horrible things to another person and get away with it simply by claiming religious belief. This opens up not just LGBT people as targets, but even other religious people. Christians can do bad things to Muslims, Muslims can do likewise to Christians. Catholics can eject Protestants from Catholic-owned housing, and vice versa. It could usher in a new era of vile anti-semitism, and hate for Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses… on and on. There are thousands of religious groups.

    If they succeed in removing the protections of anti-discrimination laws then it opens a Pandora’s box of hate that could do great damage to Australian society. Everybody saw how enthusiastic the religious extremists were about propagating lies against LGBT people during the recent postal vote. Imagine that extended in all directions.

  28. Miriam English

    I should clarify that I don’t think the religious extremists have that intention. They think it will just get them the ability to be hateful to LGBT people and foil marriage equality to some degree. They haven’t thought it through. It will actually make them targets of other religious extremists.

    And let me tell you, if it gave me the opportunity to do something horrible to Ruddock, Abbott, Bernardi, and some of the other religious extremists in our “government”, under the safety of religious conviction, then, by golly, I’d be first in line! And I’d say, “Karma, asshole!” 🙂 (I’m such a sweet and demure lady.)

  29. oldfart

    with a demeanour and facial expression like Ruddock has he is in the wrong business. He should have opened a funeral parlour.

  30. David Thurley

    They do not pay local government rates on any church property including any house used for ministers, priests, assistants etc.

  31. jim

    Card Pell and the The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) is a right-wing, corporate funded think tank based in Melbourne. …….It has close links to the Liberal Party of Australia the IPA even has had Card Pell and other eergys join them at regular meetings
    IPA Executive Director John Roskam has objected to the group being described as being “right wing”. This is waffle gate bullshit.
    I think we know what right wing means and the IPA is it.

    if the people would actually turn off the television and think. There would be a revolution tomorrow. And the rest of the world could finally live in peace and Mother Earth could reclaim her dignity.
    a Blogger, All of that depends on the voters of the United States to accept their responsibility to change the policies in Washington, DC, that are killing hope here and killing people abroad.

    on GW bush 2001/911 said “and an angel wafts in with our smoke trails and targets the terrorist” Bush, Declared War on “terror ” either you are with us…… or you are with the terrorists” has there ever been a ” the war on terror is finally over” nope nope nope
    Afghanistan poppy production up 5,000 % since 2001 Iraq a f*cken shithole libya shithole Please do not even bother with TV news but use all available resources. TV news Give it a miss.
    on religion 500 years of killing witches , ok long time ago but has it all gone or just changed names ?

    on nuclear war , from wiki. The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy is a 1991 book by Seymour Hersh. It details the history of Israel’s nuclear weapons program and its effects on Israel-American relations. The “Samson Option” of the book’s title refers to the nuclear strategy whereby Israel would launch a massive nuclear retaliatory strike if the state itself was being overrun, just as the Biblical figure Samson is said to have pushed apart the pillars of a Philistine temple, bringing down the roof and killing himself and thousands of Philistines who had gathered to see him humiliated. Today Israel has around 300/400 nuclear missiles at the ready.
    on America I believe half the American govt are israeli nationals

  32. jimhaz

    Lawyers will have a windfall if anything in his review gets through parliament, so I would not be surprised if certain discriminations do get through considering how many trained lawyers there are in parliament on both sides. The ALP is also criminally involved in the main game of modern politics which is creating and transferring profit opportunities to the wealthy class.

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