Counterblaste: Tax-exemptions for religious institutions should stay

Opinion pieces abound in today’s media world. Some outlets attempt at least a modicum of diversity in opinion, while other media brands are more one-sided than a rugby match involving the All Blacks. I often find myself disagreeing with the way Christianity is portrayed by certain pundits and how many opinionists who are hostile to the Christian worldview approach various issues. “Counterblaste” is my vent-shaft for presenting a different opinion to those I frequently encounter.

A family member recently shared a post on Facebook by actor John Barrowman (Doctor Who fans will know who I’m talking about), which featured the picture below:


chalkboard

This kind of sentiment has been building over the past few years and is at the heart of a couple of recent attacks-in-print on religious tax-exempt status by a member of the “Rationalist Society of Australia” – Hugh Harris.

Harris argued in a piece for ABC’s the Drum this week that the tide of public opinion in Australia against special tax concessions for religious institutions has become so significant, that governments will soon have to listen to overwhelming public sentiment and act.

In a previous piece in January for New Matilda, Harris also argued for abolishing any tax-privileges for religious groups that exist solely or primarily for the promotion of religion and not as social welfare agencies. He contended that religion doesn’t serve the public good; most people aren’t interested in it and the revenue the government foregoes by not taxing churches and similar institutions could be spent on many important things if it were gathered through taxation.

Let me respond to these issues (and others raised along the way) with a few points.

1. From a New Testament perspective, it would be difficult to argue that civil governments don’t have legitimate power to tax churches if they so wish.

For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God,  attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honour to whom honour is owed.
(Rom 13:6-7, ESV).

 While these verses are normally applied to Christian individuals, I cannot think of a good reason that they do not apply to Christian communities corporately. If the government imposes taxes upon churches, I think we’re obliged to pay.

2. A society that promotes freedom of religion as an essential value, should see tax concessions for religious institutions as positive for the public good. 

Allowing generous concessions to all religious groups is one way the government can promote the freedom to easily practice one’s religious beliefs – a freedom available to all citizens. If the government only privileged Christian churches with tax-exempt status, allegations of privilege would be valid. But by allowing all genuine religious institutions the same benefits, the government can hardly be accused of promoting any one religion. The current tax arrangements simply make it easier for people in a pluralistic society to form communities around their sincerely held beliefs. The problem with Harris and his Rationalist Society is that they regard all religious beliefs as invalid and unworthy of promotion. The federal government shouldn’t bow to pressure from the anti-religious of Australia and change the tax system to make it more difficult for everyone from the big three churches (Catholic, Anglican & Uniting) to the much smaller religious minority communities to easily practice their beliefs in functional organisational contexts.

3. It is inconsistent to insist on the separation of church and state with respect to political matters on one hand, while exacting taxes from religious institutions on the other.

Time and time again secularists use the separation of church and state as an argument against religious influence in the political sphere. Many want religion, particularly organised religion, kept out of government, education, health and even community planning. But in reality, any government who chooses to tax religious institutions in the way Harris is proposing, abrogates the principle of separation between church and state, by involving the state more in matters of how its citizenry practice their freedom of religion.

The separation of church and state is a civil doctrine that recognises that civil governments and religious institutions should not attempt to control one another’s affairs nor interfere unduly with the other’s respective sphere. By opting not to extract taxes from religious institutions (which are non-for-profit organisations), charge GST on the provision of religious services, or require ministers of religion to pay typical amounts of income tax, the federal government is rightly distancing itself from religious affairs (not subsidising or promoting religion(s) as Harris suggests). To change the policy and begin taxing churches and similar groups is to abandon the necessary component of the separation, which grants churches independence and freedom from government involvement in their affairs.

4. Removing tax concessions or tax-exempt status for religious institutions would have detrimental effects on society that Harris does not allow for.

 Harris argues that faith-based charities, humanitarian and educational organisations etc; should automatically keep their tax benefits – as they do contribute to public good. The Rationalist Society supports a ‘public benefit test’ for any group in Australia receiving tax concessions. Under their definitions, churches, mosques, temples and probably theological colleges, would lose their current tax status.

Harris fails to recognise that “basic religious organisations” and the ministers of religion and other staff they employ frequently provide benefits to their local communities in addition to their primary role of representing and promoting their religious beliefs. Should a church that runs a program in local schools which provides breakfast for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds lose all of its tax benefits because that is not its primary activity?

Should pastors who provide crisis counselling free of charge to community members lose their tax benefits because they spend the majority of their working week caring for the needs of church members?

Weakening the communities that provide these services and potentially causing financial hardship for religious workers who invest their time in such worthy causes, in addition to their pastoral duties, will have an effect on the provision of these services in Australian communities.

At best, Harris is ignorant about the mechanics of how churches and other religious groups might operate when providing these services to the community. At worst, his prejudice against “supernatural beliefs” may mean he is intentionally disregarding the negative social impacts, in order to promote his more important agenda of diminishing the social status of religion.

5. In light of the previous three points, neither a majority in an opinion poll, nor the abuses of particular groups should result in the government making blanket changes to the tax status of religious institutions in Australia.

Australians who oppose the retention of special tax status for religious institutions need better information about why the government has historically allowed them to enjoy such a status and what it would look like in practice for all of them to endure a massive, overnight shake-up to their relationship with the tax system. If they were to understand the real blow to freedom of religion and community services that would come about, I doubt so many would be found supporting it.

While the same sex marriage debate runs hot and horror stories of child sexual abuse fill the news weekly – I’m not surprised that many Australians favour churches in particular being brought down to size. When Harris paints his picture of groups he deems unworthy of any special tax status there is undoubted resonance – even for me. I’m concerned about the attitude towards wealth in the Catholic Church and in certain megachurches; the fraudulent activities of Scientology and the harmful manipulation of cultic groups.

But taking away the tax status of all religious groups due to the questionable behaviour of certain groups is not unlike targeting all members of one race or religion based on the crimes of a minority element from within that group. Every system will have downsides and loopholes. Scientology is undoubtedly one of the downsides to accepting freedom of religion as a core tenet. But I for one would rather live in a society where every citizen is free to choose their own form of religious expression (including the really bad ones), rather than one where the government dictates particular creedal requirements for a religious institution to be recognised as such.

Leaving all such groups free to operate without tax burdens is one way to promote a better kind of society.

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