When is a church not a church and what does it matter to non-religious or non-Christian people?
Most people, may not realise it but everyone who pay taxes or property rates is subsidising dozens of churches throughout the country which pay almost no taxes or local body rates and that subsidy potentially amounts to unquantified billions of dollars a year.
Under the Local Government Rating Act (2002) Church property that is used for religious purposes are exempt from general rates but many will still pay targeted rates, such as water, sewerage. These exemptions apply only to property used for religious purposes. Today most churches are also registered as trusts under the Charities Act (2005) which exempts them from central government taxes. Charitable status is determined by Charities Services and most churches are registered. These exemptions are a hangover from England in the 1890s when the House of Lords decided that trusts, and churches, which exist primarily for the relief of poverty, the advancement of education, the advancement of religion, and the benefit of the community should not be taxed but are those exemptions still relevant to New Zealand today?
New Zealand, unlike Britain, is a secular society with no state religion and there is, at least in theory, a clear separation between church and state. Is it reasonable then to give tax exemptions to churches for the advancement of religion?
Some churches have significant commercial enterprises, from food production to huge farming operations. While the churches themselves may qualify for tax and rates exemptions, should that also apply to the businesses they own and operate for significant profit? What they do with that profit is entirely their business but should that be at a cost to the rest of the community?
Churches, in their many guises, are enormously important to millions of people. Apart from the spiritual component, they also provide the companionship of like-minded people, support in times of grief, assistance for the needy and sense of belonging and family. They also followed the early Islamic example and built schools, the first in about 200AD, and hospitals, the first in about 800 AD. They were however not always such benign, generous or even gentle organisations and many are still not so today. Although not as brutal and much more subtle in their cruelty as in previous generations there has none-the-less been a number of prosecutions for abuse within several Christian sects in recent years. Still we persist in treating them with the utmost deference and respect but is that trust well deserved by all of them?
From the inception of the Christian church at the Council of Nicea in 325AD the church quickly became as autocratic as the Roman Empire itself. For the next 1200 years the church, primarily based in Rome, enforced observance with the most brutal and cruel punishments imaginable. Church leaders intruded into every aspect of private life, taking control of important events such as births, death and marriage with enforced observance of church ritual. There were, and in some cases still are, strict prohibitions against anything contrary to dictated heterosexual norms.
Countless millions of people were under constant threat of torture and horrific execution for the slightest hint of disbelief, disobedience or a refusal to pay church fees These were often called offerings or gifts but they were in fact compulsory payments in cash or in kind. This was usually, but not always in the form of tithes, or one tenth of personal income. It was in effect the first imposition of an income tax and those who refused or even objected were treated harshly. Unknown thousands of innocent people were hung, beheaded and burnt alive during a reign of terror lasting more than 1000 years.
Even the historic Reformation of 1517, which finally challenged the dictatorial authority of the Roman Church and eventually gave rise to Protestamism and King Henry Vlll as the head of the church in England in 1534, merely replaced one brutal dictator with another.
Anyone can start a church and there have been thousands set up over the centuries. Many don’t last beyond the life of the originators but others, preying on the most vulnerable, lonely and naïve in society have grown into financially and politically powerful organisations. In the past they were also powerful military forces. Some more recent New Zealand churches have been founded by people who have quickly become very wealthy on the dual benefits of compulsory tithing and non-taxable charitable status. Some have used that wealth to fund luxurious lifestyles and political organisations. Should they be subsidised, via tax free and charitable status, by the whole community?
It will take a very courageous government to review the role of churches and the tax exemptions they enjoy in modern New Zealand but a review is long overdue.