We would all like to reduce the amount of tax we pay. So it’s no surprise that tax cuts are now often promised by political parties during election campaigns. Of course, the downside is that tax cuts could lead to cuts in public services like health care and education.
But I think there is a way of reducing taxation without influencing government services. I have just started reading the book The Purple Economy by Max Wallace which makes clear that in New Zealand part of our taxation is used to subsidise religious activity by providing tax exemption to religious organisations. Dr Wallace points out that “tax exemption for religious organisations is a subsidy from government which makes it effectively a tithe on the entire tax-paying population of New Zealand.”
This is an important human rights issue because we are all effectively financing supernatural organisations with which many of us disagree – and we have not been consulted about this! It is also important because the exemptions mean money is being diverted from more useful purposes which would benefit all New Zealanders.
Subsidies for advancement of religion
I was shocked to find out that the NZ Income Tax Act defines the “advancement of religion” as a charitable purpose which can be used to claim exemption from taxation. The Charities Commission helpfully provides examples of the wording which can be used to claim exemption:
“…to advance and teach the religious tenets, doctrines, observances and culture associated with the [specify faith or religion] faith – or
…to preach and advance the teachings of the [specify faith or religion] faith, and the religious tenets, doctrines, observances and culture associated with that faith
…to establish, maintain and support a house of worship with services conducted in accordance with the tenets and doctrines of the [specify faith or religion] faith
…to support and maintain missions and missionaries in order to propagate the [specify faith or religion] faith
…to establish and maintain a religious school of instruction for children, young people and adults
…to establish and maintain a religious day school
…to produce and distribute religious materials
…to advance the [specify faith or religion] faith by providing spiritual and educational resources to pastors nationally and internationally
…to advance and teach the religious tenets, doctrines, observances and culture associated with the [specify faith or religion] faith by establishing a facility to be used for religious programmes, workshops, music and bible studies.”
Let’s remove discriminatory tax privileges
Now, I think most of us agree with providing tax relief to genuine charities. But this list is very different to what we usually understand as charitable activities. And they are activities restricted to just one sector of the population – those with religious or supernatural beliefs. As Max Wallace suggests the “growing numbers of non-religious people in New Zealand mean that tax privileges for religion are discriminatory. Non-religious people must pay tax, they cannot opt out of subsidising the privilege afforded to religious organisations through tax exemptions.”
It’s even worse. Religion is defined for the purposes of tax exemption as
- a belief in a supernatural being, thing, or principle
- an acceptance of conduct in order to give effect to that belief.
So we are being forced to subsidise the promotion of the supernatural!
I know some people might interpret my disgust at this situation as representing a desire to undermine religion. That’s not the case. I am perfectly happy for religious people to participate in worship, build churches, employ pastors, provide superannuation schemes for their minister, print and distribute literature, teach their beliefs, etc., but let them do it at their own expense. Let them finance it the way that non-religious people do – without special exemption from taxation.
Let’s have a level playing field. Let’s do away with these special privileges. And let’s free up some of this money, which we have all contributed, so that it can be used for the benefit of all New Zealanders
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