Today as I was sitting in a doctor’s surgery flipping through a 2007 issue of New Idea all of a sudden an advertisement for the Australian Sex Party (ASP) came on the TV. I’m even more gob smacked as the advertisement had a major focus on religion. It turns out that ASP has two major policies about taxing churches and the separation of church and state.
In the first advert, ASP spokesperson Fiona Patten commends churches for their charity work, of which she heartily approves and she is quite happy for that work to remain tax-exempt. But Patten questions the tax free privileges churches enjoy when it pertains to business ventures such as breakfast cereals (i.e., Sanitarium which is owned by the Seventh Day Adventist church) and music studios (i.e., Hillsong Church in Sydney owns some studios). Patten claims to represent the weight of public opinion when she states that “most Australians would believe that churches should pay their fair share of tax.”
Now I do think religious organizations should come under scrutiny with respect to their tax-exempt status, especially when it pertains to the running of commercial ventures that compete with local businesses. That applies to areas such as medical centres, fast food restaurants, and other commercial ventures even when they are used to fund charitable work. That said, a few responses need to be made.
First, the operating assumption of the ASP is that churches are literally stashed with cash and there is some kind of gold mine here waiting to be excavated and put into the public purse. The fact of the matter is, however, that most churches and faith-based charities that I know of are relatively small scale, operate on a shoe string budget, and normally have a staff between five and fifty. Indeed, they are desperately in need of their tax-exempt status if they are to remain financially viable. Not exactly a multi-billion dollar cash cow waiting to be milked.
Second, we have to remember that faith-communities do not compartmentalize their services into the secular and sacred. For most, their charitable work is the expression of a religious conviction. The charities are funded by the generosity of the members of faith communities and they supplement that income with various ventures like running second hand clothing stores. So trying to divide their work into the charitable and the religious is impossible as the two are inextricably linked in the faith-communities themselves.
Third, the ASP does not give us all the facts about faith-based ventures and the taxes that they pay. I checked out the Sanitarium website and it gives a very different rendition of the facts compared to the ASP. According to Sanitarium:
- Sanitarium is proud to be a part of Australia's essential charitable sector.
- The Company pays all local, state and federal taxes that apply to Australian companies apart from company profit tax.
- 100% of Sanitarium's profits are given to the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Australia, for its charitable activities which include many projects that benefit the community in Australia. These include health education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, hospitals, educational facilities, financial support for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), as well as many family services and community projects.
- There is no commercial advantage to Sanitarium from its taxation status. An unlimited tax deduction is available to all companies and individuals in Australia that donate their income to an approved charity.
- Sanitarium Health Food Company is 100% Australian owned and operated, all profits stay in Australia.
- Sanitarium contributes to Australia’s economy through the employment of 1500 Australians, the purchase of Australian wheat and other raw materials, and working with many industry associated Australian businesses.
If those facts are true, and I see no reason to dispute them, then Sanitarium is not exactly the religious tax-dodging miscreant that the ASP is alleging they are.
Fourth, the idea of taxing churches is not a new. One of Melbourne’s biggest faith-based charities is the Brotherhood of St. Laurence and what good cracking work they do! They are funded by a number of foundations, generous companies, government, and their commercial ventures. Moreover, the brotherhood is named after St. Laurence the patron saint of the poor. St. Laurence was a deacon in the Roman church responsible for collecting funds to help the poor. During the reign of the Roman Emperor Valerian, the church came under severe attack, and Valerian demanded that the church hand over its wealth to the Roman imperial government. In response, St. Laurence assembled all the poor of the city, whom were beneficiaries of the churches charitable work, and presented them to the Prefect of Rome saying, “These are the treasures of the church.” For his deed, St. Laurence was killed by roasting on a grill.
Maybe I’m just in a cheeky mood, but if Fiona Patten wants to tax the church’s wealth, I would rather like to take a page from St. Laurence and march every homeless man in a Salvos shelter, every woman taking refuge in an Anglicare domestic violence refuge, and every child sponsored by Compassion Australia into her office and tell her, “Here are the taxable profits of the church.”
It was the second ASP advertisement about the separation of church and state that I found more disturbing since it was based largely on prejudice against faith-based communities. Again, I think that God-fearing and secular folks alike would all agree in principle that separation of church and state is a good thing. Nobody wants the church controlling the state, nor should the state control the church. Everyone says, “Amen!”
Yet Patten claims that, “everyone would agree that churches have an inordinate amount of influence on politicians and on parliament.” Everyone? Really? She gives the example of the prohibition on stem-cell research and opposition to gay marriage as proofs of the “inordinate amount of influence” that churches possess in the political sphere. But if I may push back, are the policies and opinions of our parliamentarians really influenced by religious institutions? Or is it more likely that such positions are attributable to the personal convictions of our politicians and the opinions of their constituents. Maybe just maybe, its people out in the burbs and not bishops in the cathedrals that are influencing our political representatives on these matters. It’s a point worth pondering and it makes more sense than a Dan Brownesque conspiracy theory of bishops having politicians in their pocket.
Highly distressing also was Patten’s suggestion that she would like to see politicians with deep connections with church groups telling us so. Well what does she mean by that? How does one do that? Are we to force Jewish politicians to wear a Star of David armband, make Christian politicians wear big wooden crosses around their necks, or require Muslims to wear headbands with a crescent moon on them? Do we have to set up a register of religious affiliation for politicians to record their baptism, bar mitzvah, pilgrimage to Mecca, religious schools they attended, funerals they read Scriptures at, military chaplains they shook hands with while touring a defence facility, or letters they’ve written to Muslim members of their constituency wishing them a happy Ramadan? If I remember correctly, the last time that the religious convictions of politicians were recorded in a public register was in 1930s Germany with a view to weeding out the Jews from German public and political life. The ASP’s attempt to profile the religious affiliation of our politicians represents a variation of the same theme. Ironically, in an age when religion is increasingly regarded as a private matter, the ASP demands that the religious associations of our political representatives be recorded in a public forum. That makes about as much sense as forcing politicians to register their sex partners and it constitutes a monumental invasion of privacy.
Patten also goes onto rail against the school chaplaincy program (a program with strong bi-partisan support and only opposed by minor parties like the Greens and ASP). Sadly, I have to say that her remarks on this subject are totally untrue. The school chaplaincy program is not “populizing one religion” as she alleges. Note this, schools do not have to choose a Christian chaplain. A local committee decides what religious affiliation they want for their school chaplain and they then approach the appropriate representative body to recruit one. Schools can choose a Christian, Muslim, or even secular chaplain if they so wish. Critics of the school chaplaincy program have consistently misunderstood the process behind the appointment of chaplains.
It strikes me as a little strange that out of all the problems besetting our country, amidst all of the turmoil that we’ve had in the last few years, that the Australian Sex Party has focused its political campaigning on the threat purportedly posed by some invisible gaggle of cashed-up bishops who are secretly pulling the strings of our political leaders. It is hard to mistake this campaign for anything more than the use of misinformation to appeal to outlying prejudices against faith-based communities as a means of building some political capital. Thankfully I think it is a strategy doomed to fail and rightly so!
Dr. Michael F. Bird is a Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity and Lecturer in Theology at Ridley Melbourne College of Mission and Ministry
This article orginally appeared at Online Opinion.