Freedom of Religion

Last week I was asked to vote for a Senate inquiry into the conduct of the Church of Scientology. The actual wording of the motion wasn’t that direct but the intention of those supporting it was absolutely clear.

According to the advocates for the motion, Scientology wasn’t a religion but a money-making enterprise that was ruining people’s lives. They regarded the conduct of Scientology as reprehensible and detailed allegations of child labour, intimidation and forced abortions.

Perhaps the allegations are true. If that is the case, there is a formidable array of government agencies that have the power to investigate clear breaches of our laws and regulations. On the other hand, maybe the allegations are not true and simply the result of some disgruntled former Scientologists.

Either way, I am opposed to a Senate inquiry into the Church of Scientology because it calls into question our constitutional right (under section 116) to freedom of religion.

Now let me be very clear that I have no affinity or attachment to the Church of Scientology. I don’t share their beliefs or subscribe to their operations. However, I do support their right to exist on the basis that they were recognised as a religion by the High Court of Australia in 1983.

Accordingly, they are given the same benefits as other religious organisations, no more and no less. Those seeking to remove this right have only a few options. Two possibilities would be to change the tax exempt status of all religious institutions in Australia or to impose some additional test before granting religions special tax status.

It is worth noting that the government has just concluded a review of the entire taxation system (the Henry review) which is scheduled for release in the next couple of months. One would reasonably expect that tax exempt organisations would be considered as part of this process and, to my mind, the Senate shouldn’t initiate an inquiry of its own until we have seen what the government already proposes.

Another option for those who wish to see Scientology lose its status as a religion would be to ask the High Court to reconsider their original judgement. If, according to comments made in the Senate last week by Senator Xenophon, the original judgement was ‘flawed’, this would seem to be the best course of action.

That way, the case for and against their religious status could be heard by our highest judicial officers without fear of compromising the freedom of religion enshrined in our Constitution.

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