The federal government should extend equal treatment to organisations promoting non-religious worldviews and create a new charitable purpose for them in order to remove religious-based discrimination from the charities sector, the Rationalist Society of Australia has told the Productivity Commission.
In a new submission to the Productivity Commission this week, RSA president Dr Meredith Doig expressed disappointment that the independent body, in its draft report for its inquiry into philanthropy, did not recommend the removal of ‘advancement of religion’ as a charitable purpose.
The RSA urged the Productivity Commission to reconsider its position on the matter as it prepares to hand down its final report in May, arguing that the current arrangements unjustifiably discriminate against non-religious worldviews on the grounds of religion and belief.
However, if the Productivity Commission were to maintain support for keeping ‘advancement of religion’, the RSA recommended that it urge the government to create a new charitable purpose for the advancement of non-religious worldviews – encompassing atheism, humanism, rationalist and similar secular beliefs.
“Clearly, these arrangements prevent the equal opportunity for non-religious Australians to participate in the charitable sector. Non-religious community groups – such as atheists, humanists, and rationalists – are excluded from enjoying the same treatment in regards to advancing and promoting their particular worldviews as a charitable purpose in and of itself.”
“As we argued in our initial submission, we believe that charity status should be afforded to all organisations that conduct genuine charitable works for the public benefit in an accountable manner, regardless of whether that organisation is religious or not.
“If some charities continue to not be required to demonstrate any objective public benefit because they operate under the ‘advancement of religion’ charitable purpose, then, at the very least, the same rules should apply to organisations promoting non-religious worldviews.”
The RSA’s submission also welcomed the Productivity Commission’s call for a “more transparent and consistent approach” to regulating Basic Religious Charities (BRCs), with the removal of exemptions to financial reporting and governance standards to boost public accountability and transparency.
In the new submission, the RSA countered recent claims by the federal Coalition that removal of the BRC category would “increase red tape and reporting requirements” on religious charities.
The RSA noted that recent research had found that the overwhelming majority of BRCs operating through denominational frameworks were already subjected to far more onerous financial reporting requirements than required of charities under the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) Act.
In a presentation at one of our RSA Webinars last year, Dr Phil Saj, of the Adelaide Business School at University of Adelaide, also said ‘small’ BRCs – mostly churches and parishes – have greater paid and volunteer human resources deployed compared to other small charities.
The RSA has also written to the Coalition’s spokesperson for charities, Senator Dean Smith, to clarify that removal of the BRC category would not lead to an increased burden.
With the Productivity Commission holding the inquiry with an objective to grow opportunities for giving, the RSA argued that introducing a new charitable purpose for non-religious organisations to advance their worldviews would boost philanthropic giving as Australia becomes less religious.
“As we noted in our initial submission to this public inquiry, Australians are increasingly rejecting religion and adopting non-religious worldviews, and the moral and community values they entail, to guide their lives,” the submission said.
“At the next Census in 2026, with the ABS proposing to remove the inherent bias in the religion question, the proportion of Australians identifying as not religious could reach and even surpass 50 per cent.”
Si Gladman is the Campaigns & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.