Rugby, Religion, and Charities

For the past several weeks there has been an argument in Australian politics, following the sacking of Israel Folau by Rugby Australia. Israel has in the past said there is no room for homophobia in rugby, but recently has had his contract revoked by RA that after a social media post that gays (along with drunks, atheists, all the usual suspects) were going to hell. Odd to be calling attention to the Old Testament verses when one has worked on the Sabbath and is covered in tatoos.

Israel has appealed to the Fair Work Commission on the basis of freedom of religious expression. Rugby Australia has argued that it has a duty of care to provide a workplace that is safe and respectful. Despite owning several properties, Folau initiated a GoFundMe campaign, which seemed a bit odd given that he has a massive property portfolio. It raised several hundred thousand dollars before being shut down as a breach of the terms of service.

Enter the Australian Christian Lobby. A powerful group in Australian politics with a budget approaching $10 million AUD from undisclosed funding sources, the ACL has been notorious on taking a fundamentalist stance on a number of political issues, but LGBT issues. They were notable in Australia's marriage equality debate, where the ACL not only opposed the proposition, but also argued that existing hate speech law should be overridden in the campaign (as it was, the plebiscite was considered to be a political campaign and therefore not subject to truth in advertising legislation). Taking up Folau's cause, the ACL raised over $2 million AUD in a matter of days, before pausing the fundrasing campaign.

However a problem as emerged; the Australian Christian Lobby is a registered charity, meaning that they receive a number of tax benefits. But there are rules; charities must be non-profit and must not provide private benefit. As a result the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission has received a number of complaints about this behaviour:

A larger issue at stake however is the very registration of the Australian Christian Lobby as a charity in the first place. Charities in Australia are governed by the Charities Act (2013), which sets a number of criteria by which an organisation may be considered for charitable status. The Charities Act 2013 (Cth) lists twelve charitable purposes:

  • advancing health
  • advancing education
  • advancing social or public welfare
  • advancing religion
  • advancing culture
  • promoting reconciliation, mutual respect and tolerance between groups of individuals that are in Australia
  • promoting or protecting human rights
  • advancing the security or safety of Australia or the Australian public
  • preventing or relieving the suffering of animals
  • advancing the natural environment
  • promoting or opposing a change to any matter established by law, policy or practice in the Commonwealth, a state, a territory or another country (where that change furthers or opposes one or more of the purposes above), and
  • other similar purposes ‘beneficial to the general public’ (a general category).

List from the ACNC

Most of this is not at all controversial. The point where many people baulk is at the clause advancing religion. Surely, one would think, that in a modern secular society, that religious organisations should be treated the same as any other organisation and that simply "being religious" is not sufficient reason in itself to receive charitable status? That a religious organisation that wants to be a charity should engage in charitable work, such as provision of health care, or education, or relief of poverty etc?

Alas, that is not the case. As a scruffy German once said "The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living", and so it is with charity groups. The Commonwealth countries, following in the footsteps of their English masters, follows the categories of Lord Macnaghten set out in IRC vs Pemsel in 1891 as follows:

"Charity in its legal sense comprises four principal divisions: Trusts for the relief of poverty; trusts for the advancement of education; trusts for the advancement of religion; and trusts for other purposes beneficial to the community".

Whilst individual members of Commonwealth countries have modified these basic categories (including the UK, with the Charity Act of 2006), they are still in common parlance. As much as the 19th century "advancement of religion" seems archaic, odd, and even downright dangerous to citizens of the 21st century, it has been passed on from statute book to statute book with rarely a whisper of protest, and many murmers of assent from those who benefit from its continuation. Sometimes, even given this, religious charities can be removed, as happened to Family First NZ in 2013.

Regardless of historical reasons, most modern people do object to the idea that religious organisations should receive special benefits (or be subject to special restrictions) simply in virtue of being religious organisations. Often the response is parody religions (from the Church of the Sub-Genius, the Invisible Pink Unicorn, the Flying Spaghetti Monster). More seriously however, change must come from institutional change, and institutional change must be forced onto nervous and complacent politicians from outside.

With this in mind, the Victorian Secular Lobby, an incorporated association that was initiated by the Isocracy Network, has started a petition that seeks to de-register the Australian Christian Lobby as a charity for acting in the private interest, and to remove "advancing religion" as an charitable activity from the Charities Act. In the interest of a modern, secular society, we urge members and supporters of the Isocracy Network to sign and share the petition.

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