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Article 18 doesn’t mean taxpayers should fund someone’s religion

25 July 2015 No Comment

Article 18 is a section of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights signed by every member of the UN in 1948. Written just after World War II, it attempted to find a form of words that would help ease the traumas of global friction. Its terms are included in many treaties, declarations and bills of rights.

Attempting to deal with the belief and religious dimension of that friction, article 18 states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his (sic) religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in a community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Theoretically this should also protect the rights of those whose belief is non-belief — whether it be atheism, agnosticism or just “leave me alone-ism.

But it doesn’t — especially when the leaders of many governments, including those in Australia, continue to use the tax dollars of non-religious people or people of other religions to fund their own personal religious beliefs.

Within his first 100 days in office Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews passed new laws that meant taxpayers’ money would be used to support all religious and independent schools in his state. The legislation guaranteed to fund these schools to a minimum of 25 per cent of what public schools receive from consolidated revenue — regardless of individual wealth.

This flies in the face of the Gonski recommendations, which Victorians could well have expected an Andrews government to have supported. It also flies in the face of article 18 of the UDHR.

These often wealthy religious schools don’t even have to account for the funding they have been given. They can use the money to build a squash court for teachers, a darts room for students or, dare I say it, a course on lesbian surfboard making, and none of us would be any the wiser. It’s a no-questions-asked use of taxpayers’ money.

When these laws were passed in the Victorian upper house, only the Greens and the Sex Party’s Fiona Patten voted against them. In the wake of this legislation, it would be illuminating to see where Victorian MPs’ children go to school. We may well find that most of them attend private schools. If this is the case, then isn’t their vote for this funding almost a conflict of interest?

Let’s say hypothetically that 70 per cent of Victorian MPs sent their children to a Scientology school or an Exclusive Brethren school and then gave all Scientology and Exclusive Brethren schools 25 per cent of the funding that the local state school down the road had received, with no accountability for how it was spent. Wouldn’t there be a public outcry? But what if it turned out that 70 per cent of Victorian MPs’ children went to a Catholic or Anglican school and all Catholic and Anglican schools got the windfall?

But guess what? The recent Victorian legislation means that Catholic, Anglican, Scientology and Exclusive Brethren schools all get the bonanza.

A new book by a former law lecturer at the University of Canberra, Meg Wallace, sheds considerable light on this subject. In ‘Freedom From Religion: Rethinking Article 18’, Wallace argues that the interpretation and implementation of the terms of article 18 by the UN, the courts and national governments have led to an official privileging of religion. Instead, she maintains, it should be protecting the rights of individuals to be free of religion if they wish.

As far as I know, Patten is the only politician in Australia who is proposing the taxation of churches as a way of levelling out the billions of dollars that religious institutions receive in federal and state government handouts. At the last Victorian election she claimed that church-owned entities, which include major food manufacturers, insurance companies and publishers, paid no income tax at all. This costs ordinary Australian taxpayers more than $20 billion a year. When one includes GST concessions, exemptions from capital gains tax (on property and share trading) and the fringe benefits tax exemption, the cost is actually a lot more.

Writing in ‘The Australian Humanist’ journal, John Perkins and Frank Gomez estimated the cost of religion to the Australian taxpayer in 2009 was $31bn a year. That included the cost of funding tax-exempt religious schools, where parents pay fees ranging from $2000 to $3000 a year, to the elite private schools where $30,000-plus is common.

At a state level, religious organisations don’t pay property taxes. At the local council level, they don’t pay rates. At a personal level, there are generous fringe benefits, awarded by the Australian Taxation Office.

What we don’t know is the scale of church landholdings in Australia, the size of their share portfolios or their cash in the bank. Why don’t we know? This is because when the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission was established in 2012 by the federal government, it gave religious organisations an exemption from reporting their wealth.

A big part of the problem is the ongoing misinterpretation of article 18 by Australian politicians — especially the section that says everyone should have the freedom “to manifest his (sic) religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

While this means that people should be free to practice whatever beliefs they choose, surely it doesn’t intend that ordinary taxpayers should be made to fund someone else’s religion.

Wallace also looks at article 18 in a larger context. Consider the Cairo Declaration, drafted by 50 Islamic nations in 1990. While maintaining nominal adherence to the UDHR, it declares, in blatant disregard of the related International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, that human rights can be determined through sharia law. Adding insult to injury, Saudi Arabia, which executes apostates, recently assumed membership of the Human Rights Council of the UN and is seeking its leadership.

Surely article 18 needs to be reworded? It needs to take account of the increasing number of religious travesties in the world as well as catering for the large and growing number of people who don’t have any faith or religion.

Emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 37 books, including his memoir ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey.’

The Weekend Australian, July 25-26, 2015, Inquirer p 24.

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