The advancement of religion has been recognised as a charitable purpose in the common law since at least 1601. Australian federal law expressly affirms this. But Victoria’s Sex/Reason Party disagrees.
In an Australian first, Fiona Patten MLC of the Sex/Reason Party has sought to remove the advancement of religion as a charitable purpose, in Victoria, by her Charities Amendment Bill 2018.
The bill is consistent with her objective of removing any Judeo-Christian ideas from public policy. Patten took the “if you can’t beat them, tax them” attitude which would have significantly reduced charitable actions in Victoria.
The bill was first tabled in March but was ruled unconstitutional because it sought to raise a tax in the Legislative Council, rather than the Legislative Assembly.
Not willing to let it rest, in the Legislative Council on the 9 May 2018, Ms Patten asked the government to adopt the bill in the Legislative Assembly.
This lead to spirited parliamentary debate in the Legislative Council. The advancement of religion was ultimately affirmed as a charitable purpose. Daniel Mulino MLC, speaking on behalf of the Andrews Government, made the point that large parts of the community obtain a sense of moral guidance and purpose through religion. He said that most members of the community would want the advancement of religion to remain within the concept of a charitable purpose.
Australian Conservatives MLC Rachel Carling-Jenkins, in her speech, highlighted the wisdom of Lord McNaughton in a majority decision of the House of Lords in 1891. Lord McNaughton noted that the narrow view of charity was, “the relief of persons from physical privations or suffering arising from poverty and going no farther.” In explaining that charity should include relief from what is often termed spiritual destitution, he said, “No insignificant portion of the community consider what are termed spiritual necessities as not less imperatively calling for relief and regard the relief of them not less as a charitable purpose as the ministering to physical needs.”
Patten’s bill strikes at this broad definition of charity. She argues that only the concrete, tangible charitable activities of religious organisations, such as feeding the poor, constitute charity.
Mulino said “A lot of these organisations and their activities – their pure observance activities – are so often deeply intertwined that it could often be very difficult to separate them in a simple way. This is also one of the reasons why the definition has evolved as it has. For so many people their religious observance is actually intertwined with their actions-for some… I imagine it could become very, very tricky to separate those matters neatly and exclude one of those heads.”
In a twist of logic, Patten’s bill provides that organisations that advance intangible concepts such as culture or the rights of those discriminated against or “a need that is not being met” would qualify as charitable entities.
In other words, organisations pursuing intangible objectives can be afforded the status of charity, so long as the organisation is not advancing religion.
The bill would implement Patten’s passion to tax the churches. The artful exemption that she gives in clause 12, exempting “a place used exclusively as a place of public worship” from land tax, is no protection at all. Jennifer Huppert of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, commenting on the bill, said that shuls would be affected because “by its very nature a synagogue is a community centre.”
Similarly, suburban churches are regularly used for community groups and events. However, it is clear from clause 12 that using a church for any purpose apart from worship would result in land tax being applied.
In any event, land tax would be applicable to all ancillary church property, such as church offices, meeting rooms and car parks.
If the bill became law, the tax would greatly impact churches, shuls, and mosques, resulting in the more tangible expressions of charity being greatly reduced.
During the debate on the motion, Patten took a tangent and argued that the Australian Christian Lobby should not have charitable status because “it was not feeding the poor or raising money for disaster relief”. The ACL advocates for many ethical views, including human rights for the unborn and religious freedom and against euthanasia and prostitution. Patten opposes these positions. Naturally, in her bill, organisations arguing for the intangible causes that she supports would still retain their charitable status.
It is welcome news that Patten’s attempt to remove the “advancement of religion” as a charitable cause has failed dismally.
The government and opposition have combined to see that the church and other faith communities will not be taxed out of existence.
The Australian Christian Lobby will continue to be a voice to government for values and human flourishing. In relation to legislation before the Parliament, the ACL will often work with Jewish and other faiths to preserve the Judeo-Christian ethic in public life.
We must be vigilant against these attacks which would diminish the importance of faith communities in our great multicultural State.
Dan Flynn is Victorian Director of the Australian Christian Lobby.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.