Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Climate of Discrimination

Is there a climate of discrimination in New Zealand as it relates to churches and church organisations playing their part in society?

Last week I heard a very respected lecturer describe a sustained assault on Christianity through misinformed, biased courses of study at Auckland University across a range of disciplines. I've heard accounts from students that back this view up.

I'm aware that a church group which operates in Auckland was recently savaged by an elected community official in a public forum, describing the operate of that church's social services through a community trust as "very Winston Peters". The gentleman is either misinformed about the widespread use of community trusts to deliver social services or he is malevolently inclined towards church organisations.

The Flat Bush area in the eastern suburbs of Auckland has no provision in its district plan for churches. It may be the first community of its kind: no churches. Some will say good job and maybe that proves the point.

Does the climate exist or am I imagining things? Cos the way I see it, misguided or not in their belief in a supreme being, many churches are holding the social fabric of the country together.


Jack said...

Interesting post - I think the climate does exist, I hear comments quite often but I think there are a few things at play
1. The 'charity' sector as a whole is getting a name for being a means of dodging tax. Set your business up as 'non for profit' and pay high salaries instead etc.
2. Churches, like Winston, appear to be rich - even if assets only - in comparison to those they claim to serve. It seems that churches put money first - like the many churches who put there hands out for gambling generated funds while claiming to care for gamblers.
3.People don't trust Pastors, nor Winston - tho for different reasons. The widespread lies and cover ups that go on with sexual abuse give all churches a bad rep.

Finally, I doubt that 'churches are holding the social fabric of the country together'. I certainly agree that they do a lot of good community work, but so do heaps of other non Christian based organisations. Could you explain what you mean by the 'social fabric'?

BJ said...

Interesting. I wasn't aware of that groundswell in the charitable arena. Doesn't play out in most churches as the salary bands are very modest. I don't complain about my salary - I'm very grateful for it, but Working For Families is my friend! You're right about some of the oldline churches - asset rich but strangely congregationally poor. There are some striking examples in the pentecostal tradition of large premises - but many of these are also large churches in terms of members and community facing programmes. We meet in a community building that we share with other community groups. It leaks (6 places in the auditorium) but its home! There are literally hundreds (thousands?) of churches meeting in school halls, community buildings etc. Asset poor, but community focus rich.

What I mean by social fabric is broadly welfare not moral (to distinguish a question I may have heard lurking in your question:)) And I don't mean that its the only force for community good. But if you took it out people would suffer significantly - Salvation Army, the various social services arms, City Missions plus the plethora of local church programmes that operate. I'm not saying churches are the biggest contributor, but simply that their role is so significant that the social fabric for the disadvantaged would unravel.

BJ said...

I should also say that from my experience the local Council officers are very aware of this and do all in their power to partner with church organisations that are legitimately pursuing social goals that align with the city's vision/values.

Jack said...

I think its just that I come to this from a small town perspective where there are two or three main large churches - the Anglican, Catholic and Elim. These have the assets and the people here. I also suspect that many non-Christian folk would stereotype churches using these big churches that are made somewhat more obvious by their buildings. The way you guys operate sounds so much more Christ like ; ). Do you get any perks like the Anglican leaders do in my town - free house (rent), free petrol, free car etc or is it only the free shower (courtesy of the leak!)? I also think in a smaller town there is perhaps more community support for the disadvantaged - everyone knows everyone else and therefore look out for one another more or maybe its just less easy to go unnoticed and less easy to get away with ignoring. Even without the support services offered, I think others would step into the gaps. I could however be a bit optimistic in my thinking on that one. There certainly would be some big gaps and that social work is a major credit to the church. In fact to me its the best thing about church.

BJ said...

Urban isolation sucks for sure.

No freebies I'm afraid. I do get an accomodation component in my salary package. At the same time the church's office is in our house. Manses tend to be the oldline church's deal - historic church's with high levels of itinerancy for ministers.

Jack said...

Sounds good but it will take a long time for people outside of the church to change their perception of churches on the whole - Extract from Raybon Kan's column in the Sunday Times today - in defence of the big bang experiment he says the billions are "a fraction of what the world doesn't receive in tax from outrageously wealthy churches. Think the money spent through the ages making churches rich at the expense of the poor and ignorant, their target market."

BJ said...

Funny. His previous sentence tells us what Raybon really thinks:

"And a fraction of what the world spends on religion, which fuels religious superstitious ignorance, guilt, and religious war..."

Cos that stuff is religion's fault ;)

If I didn't think he was being hyperbolic I might take this on. But I restrain myself - your point is the view is out there and an inaccurate humourous statement from the Raybon's of the world cuts more ice than what I might say about "tax on what exactly?"

After it was Raybon who said describing people that he likes:

"People who say, but what did Mother Teresa really do for the poor? Except collect them up."

Jack said...

I hear you and while I do get a few laughs from Raybon's wit I have noticed in past columns that he doesnt have a lot of time for religion and makes some frustrating exaggerations, generalisations and assumptions but as you say, it does represent a view that is out there and there must be some real reasons for it. I guess the tax is about tax on money gained by the church - whether it be from rents or tithing or whatever. I don't know enough about what the tax rules are for churches but I do know there is a perception that they are exempt a lot more than other organisations. Or more generally a perception that churches wealth makes them hypocritical.

BJ said...

Its a different topic than perception which may not be, but passes for, reality, but here is my understanding of the position:

Churches are generally held to be charitable in nature in a legal sense - that is as part of the subset of charitable organisations that are religious in nature including other faiths. For example a random search of the Charities Register brings up Rigdrol Yeshe Buddhist Institute - it is a charitable trust and its main purpose is to promote awareness, understanding, study and practice of Buddhism. The state judges that the practice of such belief systems add to modern society. Most of the reductionist references to religion and wars etc are just that. If you were a religion that preached hate and war you wouldn't get in.

Most churches which use trusts will establish themselves under one or more of the following charitable categories:

Advancement of religion
Relief of poverty
Advancement of education
General community benefit

Charities have 3 main advantages:

1. They have donee status - that means people can give to these organisations without paying gift duty and also that they receive a rebate on their income tax up to one third of the value of the rebate. This is a State encouragement for individuals to give to charities.

2. Charities are not subject to income tax for income generated from taxable activities in relation to the charitable activity. You have to show a connection. The rationale is that the the "profits" are retained for the charity and can only ever be spent for that purpose. The 'pay big salaries' argument doesn't work - no organisation pays tax on salaries - a salary is an expense that is paid before profuts are taxed - the individual does pay tax on salaries - and people employed by charities are subject to PAYE like everyone else. I don't know how churches that have property out for rent but which is unrelated to their mission go on taxes. They may pay. Just don't know.

3. Charities are subject to some tax exemptions - GST and FBT - the GST one is obvious - its to encourage charities. FBT is similar - now here is one place you could abuse the system by providing employee benefits such as a vehicle without paying FBT - but FBT is incurred by the organisation and not the individual so the benefit to individuals is minimal.

Churches mostly make their money by donations. Donations are never taxed whether you're giving to Destiny or Tear Fund. Salaries are. Church pastors pay tax, believe me!

Jack said...

Thanks for the clarification - I can see the reasoning behind the rules /exemptions and I think for some authentic churches that the tax gains are far outweighed by the money spent serving the community. However, I can also see that some churches use their money in ways that are more selfish. For example, the Anglican church I once went to spent a lot of money on: free rent, petrol, cars and houses for staff PLUS good salaries and fancy gowns, then there is the maintenance/insurances/rates etc for fancy high capital buildings in prime locations. And now I hear Lambeth cost the Anglican church more than 10 million - to discuss whether homosexuals were good enough to join their elite rankings. Can people trust that their donations will be spent in a Christ like fashion? Surely its not surprising that people don't trust the church with money.