According to The Age, tax exemptions to Australian churches cost federal, state and local government more than $500 million annually. Complaints about this have come from commercial operators who see the tax-free status as unfair competition and from local government. For example, a new hospital wing built by a church that competes with a private hospital is exempt from land tax. The Melbourne City Council asserts that church exemptions from rates cost it $10 million annually and force a 10% increase in rates for other ratepayers. The recent study on aggregate tax exemption costs was commissioned by the Rationalist Society of Australia and a group at Victoria University.
Churches argue that charitable and community services get provided cheaply by them so the taxpayer gets value from tax exemptions. This is a fair point – many people working for these organizations have high moral aspirations and deal effectively with the problems of those in desparate need. Recent cases of abuse of people in aged care suggest the unadorned profit-motive does not always work – we need people with moral values for this work although there is should be no presumption that only those who believe in religion are moral.
An improvement on this arrangement would see explicit grants being paid to charitable organizations that would also be liable for full taxes. These organizations would then be held to account for how this money is spent via a public accounting system. But I cannot see this proposal as plausible in the current Australian political scene. So I won’t waste my breath elaborating ways it might be done.
Current tax exemptions go mainly to traditional churches but also to the Church of Scientology. I guess traditional Catholics and Protestants would frown upon this but I don’t believe differentiation on this basis is justifiable if the only basis for claiming a tax exemption is belief in a deity. It’s a belief that cannot be refuted using evidence that is being subsidized so particular believers should not be exempted. Why be selective in selecting among silly beliefs?
Indeed, when I look at this wicked world and consider the good work that my blog is carrying out in promoting love, peace and universal understanding I feel that I should declare myself a God and form my own religion that would seek tax exempt status. US firms offer advice on how to do this. Given my vast life experiences (economist for 35 years, parent for 20) I should be able to get my Doctor of Divinity degree in 7 days.
If this was granted – as it should – I would pontificate on the vexed question of whether condoms should be permitted for sex between partners, one of whom is HIV positive. In fact I already worked that one out. In a dream, last night, I had visions of a doctor and the pope debating the issue and, in a flood of universal illumination, I backed the doctor. I’d find it harder to determine who among the virtuous of this world should be punished and who among the dishonest crooks and the wicked should be inexplicably allowed to get away with it.
With tax exemption I could also take that long-awaited working holiday to help save pagan souls. And my proposed tithe, 8% of your gross salary, is competitive – the Hillsong Church for example charge 10%. You would receive a receipt for your contributions and a locket of your hair could be posted in remote sensing range of my aura.
I don’t have any testimonials as yet but I have never been accused of abusing government grants – if I got money to help aborigines I would not spend it on my staff. Indeed that’s easy as I don’t have any and wouldn’t plan to. All proceeds would go to me.