Geoffrey Robertson QC at Atheist Convention 14 April 2012


… well, there are many examples in many countries of special privilege for the religious and each time they came under attack from human rights lawyers – the angels’ advocates. But here in Australia, they range from prayers in parliament to the closure of bottle shops on Good Friday.


But the law of most consequence is that relating to tax which exempts any organisation from tax if it’s a religious institution. The High Court has ruled that to be tax-exempt as a religion you require only a belief, I quote, ‘in a supernatural being, thing or principle.’ And that was the ruling that Scientologists are tax-exempt.

So, of course, [would be] the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hillsong, the Free Deist Community of Australia, and for that matter the Lord’s Resistance Army – were Joseph Kony to set it up with other Christian sects in Toowoomba … this is massively unfair.

Human Rights Watch has been trying for years to get government approval for a tax-exempt status, but it’s incredibly difficult.

Here, if you’re a secular do-gooder … automatic for a religion, no matter how crazy. If we had a federal rights act of course with an anti-discrimination protection, this state of affairs could be challenged. Which is doubtless why George Pell campaigned so ferociously against a bill of rights.

I suppose if you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em.

Atheist foundations could qualify for tax exemption by declaring their belief in Christopher Hitchens.

Turn him into an L. Ron Hubbard figure to be worshipped through his sacred books. But that’s really taking Alain de Botton’s suggestion too far.

A better answer would be for governments to pass laws requiring the main churches, religions, to use … to open their churches … built mainly on public money … to offer some public service in return.

I’ve often thought when driving through the countryside that it would be really useful to require churches to offer public toilet facilities for passing motorists, when caught short … you’d always know where to go by looking to the nearest steeple.

‘Here’s the church. Here’s the steeple. Open the door, where’s all the people? Where have all the people gone? The Global Atheist Convention, every one’. We could take Alain so far as to produce nursery rhymes for atheists.

But, of course, the proper answer to this egregious discrimination is to abolish tax breaks for all religions. They are businesses after all, they should pay the going rate in corporation tax.

Government need not go as far as Henry VIII when he seized the wealth of the monasteries … although … come to think of it … we could have a steeple tax, refundable in heaven.

But I can’t envisage an Australian parliament taxing the churches any time soon since our parliamentary day begins, not with one, but with two prayers: the Lord’s Prayer and a special prayer wherein Almighty God is humbly beseeched to vouchsafe his blessing so that parliament’s deliberations will – and I quote – ‘lead to the advancement of Thy Glory’.

So, perhaps we should think of the carbon tax as God’s answer to our prayers. It will perhaps restrain those noxious emissions rising to heaven from Queensland coal. But, here’s an interesting thing.

S.116 of the Australian Constitution actually says ‘the Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion or for imposing any religious observance’. So how on earth does parliament get away with imposing prayers at the start of every day? It can’t do so constitutionally by law … the law would be unconstitutional if it did … so very sneakily, they provided for it by way of internal standing orders.

The prayers in parliament are only justified by these internal standing orders that have no legal basis.Can you subvert s.116 of the constitution just like that?

Someone should bring a case. We need angels’ advocates to take that case to the High Court.

S.116 goes on to provide ‘no religious test shall be required for any office or trust under the Commonwealth’. Sounds terrific! No religious test for any office under the Commonwealth!

What about our head of state? This is an office under the Commonwealth occupied by the British monarch, a personage defined by the 1701 Act of Settlement as the member of a family carrying the genes of the 17thC German Protestant princess, Sophia of Hanover.

And the Act of Settlement requires the monarch – the head of state of Australia remember – should be a communicate member of the Church of England and it sets the monarch up as the head of the Church of England and it lays down that anyone who becomes, or is married to a Catholic – or heaven forfend – a Methodist – or Rastafarian or atheist – cannot sit on the throne.

… having William as the next king … [I]rather hope that his father will become an atheist or declare himself some form of vegetable worshipper so that he’ll be disqualified … but it was quite clear the monarchy itself, with its in-built discrimination, the Church of England … is contrary to s.116 … unless of course, I suppose, if you took it to court, the High Court might say that the Royal Family occupies an office over the Commonwealth rather than under it.

But there it is. We have the absurdity of a British Anglican being head of state of Australia notwithstanding our atheist Prime Minister.


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