Donation laws threaten to reach inside church walls

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Church groups fear proposed new laws will designate congregational sermons and conversations as political while strictly regulating how they can be funded under the threat of jail terms.

The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill and the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill are part of a package of legislation introduced to federal parliament. The legislation is currently being considered by inquiries.

Uniting Church social justice advocate Dr Mark Zirnsak said the legislation could make statements of societal values, including those based on Christian beliefs, designated as politically partisan with a raft of potentially prohibitive regulations attached.

“This proposed legislation says that speaking on any issue publicly is the same as campaigning for a political party or candidate,” he said.

“This is not just about speaking up on issues like people seeking asylum or justice for Australia’s First Peoples. Conversations within the churches about the role of churches in society will be treated as political conversations that need to be regulated.”

Combined with new rules, purportedly designed to limit the influence of foreign donors funding for ministry could potentially be drawn into a draconian set of registry requirements.

“Only Australian citizens and residents will be allowed to make donations to fund ministry and mission of the church,” Dr Zirnsak said.

“Each church member will be required to provide a statutory declaration that they are an Australian citizen or Australian resident before their giving can be used for mission or ministry.

“Donations from non-citizens or people who do not provide a statutory declaration will be required to be kept separate and only spent on things that do not involve ministry or mission, such as property.

“Breaking these rules could see the person in charge of the church’s financial arrangements sent to prison for up to 10 years.”

Dr Zirnsak said the legislation threatens to stifle advocacy and debate.

“Similar legislation by conservative governments in the UK and Canada was used to shut down the voices of community groups in conversations about how to create a better society in those countries,” he said.

The president of the Uniting Church in Australia, Stuart McMillan, said the proposed new electoral funding laws will “potentially damage the democratic process”.

Mr McMillan has called on the legalisation to be redrafted.

“Churches and other organisations advocating for the common good should not be impeded in exercising our prophetic voice,” he said.

“These changes will make it harder to make heard the voices, issues and concerns of people in the communities we serve.”

Church community services arm Uniting Care Australia said a requirement to verify and record the residency status of anyone who donated more than $250 per year would drastically affect their work.

“This would clearly mean a significant reduction in the fundraising capacity of ourselves and service agencies, therefore reducing vital services to those most in need,’’ Uniting Care national director Claerwen Little said.

For more information and letter-writing resources to help campaign against the new laws click here.

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