New Zealand Think Tank Recommends Re-Examining Whether Religious Institutions Should Qualify for Charitable Status

May 18th, 2015

Lest anyone think my post yesterday about religious groups exiting the body politic was hyperbole, the New Zealand Initiative, “an independent public policy think tank supported by chief executives of major New Zealand businesses,” has suggested that religious organizations need not qualify for charitable (tax-exempt status).

The current definition of the Charitable Act provides, in part:

In this Act, unless the context otherwise requires, charitable purpose includes every charitable purpose, whether it relates to the relief of poverty, the advancement of education or religion, or any other matter beneficial to the community.

The report offers this recommendation (p. 10):

The first much needed change is a review of the Charities Act. This should not be limited to a review of the definition of charitable purpose, although such a review would allow policymakers to assess whether the current definition is appropriate. In addition, the review might usefully examine whether religious and cultural institutions should continue to qualify for charitable status simply because they pursue the goal of promoting religion and culture. This is not to say that such institutions should not be considered, but the assessment criteria should be the same for all organisations seeking the status of registered charities.

The recommendation does not have any revisions to scrutinizing a program that “relates to the relief of poverty” or the “advancement of education.” (Neither topic is mentioned after the introduction). Just “religious or cultural institutions.” Because “cultural” is not mentioned in the Act, I presume this is a species of religion, but I’m not sure. In other words, the government would be in a position to determine whether the beliefs of a specific religious group are for the benefit of the public, and worthy of tax-exempt status.

If applied in the United States, picking and choosing which religions can receive tax-exempt status would likely run afoul of the Free Exercise clause. A blunter approach would simply be to deny tax-exempt status to any group found guilty of violating non-discrimination ordinances. Like Bob Jones.

I find that ideas like this often germinate abroad, and come to the United States within a few years, usually starting in small progressive enclaves. There was a reason why in my post I suggested that the decision to deny tax-exempt status comes from local governments through the forms of sales and property tax-exemption. The federal code will likely be resistant to change for some time. But cities and counties will not be so bound.

Stay tuned.

H/T Religion Clause