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Money, Religion, and Taxes

By Brian Morris

In 1587 Dr John Bridges coined the phrase “A fool and his money are soon parted”. Just fourteen years later Queen Elizabeth the First issued her 1601 Statute on Charities making “the advancement of religion” an act of ‘charity’, and free of all taxes. The church hierarchy were no fools — they and their accumulated church wealth would remain inseparable.

Australia inherited this 400 year-old Statue at the time of colonisation and religion remains effectively tax-free — along with many quasi-religious activities which have no clearly defined charitable purpose. It’s an issue of increasing concern given the rising profile of churches in private education, private health, aged care, and a variety of commercial interests.

Churches demand their activities remain “outside the taxable economy” and this is the point of contention. Antiquated tax laws need to be revised — not necessarily overturned but modified in synch with changing attitudes towards religion. Greece has already acted, in 2010 they revoked many tax concession enjoyed by the Greek Orthodox Church.

The Centre for Public Christianity (CPX), in a recent SMH article, contrived to defend the somewhat archaic tax-free status for all religions. The arguments by CPX are at best disingenuous and at worst dishonest when they boldly claim “Churches aren’t businesses and they still deserve a tax break“.

Clearly, genuine Australian charities need tax relief — but only 20% of the 54,000 charities actually provide services for people who are disadvantaged. Do we still need to reward churches that merely “advance religion”?

Is it not time for government, the public and media to think seriously about religious organisations that don’t provide any authentic charitable services — those evidently operating as a business, or who only promote religion?

Does CPX truly advocate tax havens for the Church of Scientology, or a host of cults like Agape, and all the evangelical groups whose primary role is to make schoolchildren “disciples of Christ”? Does the Centre for Public Christianity itself — along with the Australian Christian Lobby, and all other religio-political lobbyists — believe they should be tax-exempt?

For CPX to equate these powerful organisations with scout groups, historical societies or art galleries — that serve a far broader community — is quite unjust and dishonest. Nor do they compare with the countless church businesses in food, commercial services, health, education, aged care, wineries, and all the other enterprises that operate virtually tax-free.

For whose benefit do all these religious publicists and promoters exist? Do they gain tax dispensation simply for recruitment, where congregations are in sharp decline? Only 8 per cent of Australians now attend church regularly.

But the crux of this whole taxation problem is accountability.

What are the churches of every denomination really worth — together with their quasi-religious ventures? What is the value of all their vast holdings in property, land, assets, investments, and collective incomes? And should some small part of their operations now contribute to the much wider community in some form of taxation?

We simply don’t know these precise figures — although estimates run into many billions. The truth is that religious organisations are not required to submit annual reports to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC). Some churches may well pay selected state or local taxes — but we don’t know! It’s time we did!

Public debate on the whole question of religious tax exemptions and changes to the Charities Act are long overdue. Four centuries on from the Statute of Elizabeth citizens should know the wealth and income of all Australian churches, their affiliates, and the organisations promoting religion. The ‘religious industry’ needs to become fully accountable.

Certainly, a tax exemption for merely “advancing religion” is an anachronism in today’s secular society — and particularly when other countries have already moved to make churches more financially and socially liable.

In Greece, the Greek Orthodox Church is now required to pay taxes. These include; a tax on their substantial real estate, a 20 per cent tax on rents they receive from their real estate, a 3 per cent tax leased lands, a meagre 0.5 per cent on donations, bequests and inheritances, and the church now pays stamp duty fees on the sale of its properties.

Arguments from vested religious interests, to keep Australian churches tax-free, have become tiresome. Churches no longer have a vast rank and file, only a privileged hierarchy intent on defending the indefensible. There is inescapable logic why entrepreneurial religion — that which is not self-evidently charitable — should pay a fair tax. All churches must be required to report annually their total assets and full income from all sources.

From there, rational decisions can be made on the amount that churches must contribute by way of taxation. The Greek model may well be a good place to start.

brian-morris-0-head-shot-150x150 About Brian Morris: World travel shaped Brian’s interest in social justice — wealth, poverty and religion in many countries. His book Sacred to Secular is critically acclaimed, including from the Richard Dawkins Foundation. It’s an analysis of Christianity, its origins and the harm it does. It’s a call for Australia to become fully secular. More information about Brian can be found on his website, Plain Reason.

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  1. Stephen Brailey

    Absolutely on the money…?

  2. Harquebus

    Brainwashing minors is child abuse. All religions should be R rated then, within a generation or two they will be on the lunatic fringe where they belong. Only by preying on kids can they perpetuate.
    Tax them for sure.

  3. billshaw2013

    Not only are religious organisations operating tax free schools they are receiving state monies. All the more reason accountability is required.

  4. Zathras

    I believe the Catholic Church has a number of Concordats – the contents kept mostly secret – with various nations.


    The impression I get is that the Church agrees to remain apolitical in return for specific favours, such as taxation benefits, the concept of sanctuary and the special legal status of their priesthood (such as the legal secrecy aspect of confession). There are probably many other provisions as well but we are not permitted to know.

    In any other instance it would look like some sort of standover tactic or protection racket because bestows a special privilege on what is essentially a financially empowered Corporation in return for specified benefits unavailable to anybody else.

    Now that they are actively involved in political canvassing on various social matters – such as abortion or gay marriage – perhaps the taxation situation should be addressed.

  5. Alan Malcolm

    There is no excuse for this trumpery in the 21st century. Tax the buggers. They want opinions? Influence in govt? Then tax is the way. They are all corporations in structure.

  6. Miriam English

    If churches were truly interested in the welfare of citizens and society then THEY would be promoting the importance of them contributing to society via taxation. Clearly they are more interested in accumulating money for themselves. If they won’t step forward to contribute through tax, then they must be forced.

    The churches would benefit greatly from being taxed. Removing that great attraction for shysters and con-artists would go some way to restoring some morality to the church. Opening their affairs up would help to clear up the massive corruption festering in all the churches. Why would they not welcome that? I think it all comes down to greed.

    Tax the bastards.

  7. Hugh Harris

    Why we still tolerate tax free status plus government funding to allow evangelists to proselytise to children is staggering.

    When will the row about teaching kids “contested ideologies” be similarly applied to the most contest ideologies of them all?

  8. Jaquix

    No argument from me about huge reform needed. Disgraceful wasteful throwing away of good income for the country. The Seventh Day Adventist Church has been selling Weetbix for donkeys years, all tax-free profits going back to them. Brian Morris has also pointed out they dont even have to be accountable to the Charities Commission. They should only get tax free exemption for the percentage of good works they might do, like the Salvation Army providing meals and help to the homeless. Hillsong (a la Scott Morrison) is raking in an absolute fortune, at our expense. Actually the criteria for being tax-exempt needs urgent overhaul too. IPA (so-called Institute of Public Affairs) has enjoyed being a “charity” probably on the spurious grounds allowed, of “undertaking social research”. It will be a brave government that tackles this, but it does need to be tackled.

  9. diannaart

    All this talk by our ‘leaders’ about budgets, living with our means (and they do mean OUR means, not theirs). Time to make religion accountable like the rest of us.


  10. king1394

    Instead of looking back to Elizabeth I for guidance perhaps we should consider her father, Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries.

  11. townsvilleblog

    Religions are only one of the parasites we have on tax payers money, we also have at least 579 foreign corporations draining our nation of billions and not paying a cent in taxes.

  12. Zathras

    Until they make a financial contribution to the well-being of a society, they should have no say in how that society behaves.

    The fact that they pay no tax means that others have to pay more.

    A more extreme example would be the implication that the financial cost of defending pedophiles and/or relocating them to other areas is being underwritten by other taxpayers, perhaps even the victims themselves.

    Also, at least one Church has been alleged to be laundering taxpayers money by shifting some of the Commonwealth donations for its private schools into a shelf company that then redirects those funds back as a political donation.

    This was raised in the Senate years ago but totally ignored by the media.
    I suppose some things are just off-limits.

  13. Pingback: Opinion -- Wealth, Religion and Tax | Plain Reason

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