How do religious groups fund their activities and try to avoid unduly influencing their members and/or overstepping relevant not-for-profit and charity laws?
ANU Law’s Professor Pauline Ridge will be examining such questions during her research sabbatical in early 2019 that will involve studies in the United Kingdom and Canada and comparisons to Australian law.
“I’ve been interested [in religious financing] since I was a law student,” Professor Ridge explains.
“I was studying equity and trusts at the ANU and attended a Uniting Church service where the visiting missionaries were talking about the power of prayer.
“They’d prayed publicly for a vehicle for their missionary work, very specifically for a make of van, and said their prayers were answered. As a law student, my first – albeit cynical – thought was, ‘but have you taken advantage of your spiritual influence over the people who were likely to give you money?’
In January, Professor Ridge will be a visitor at the Oxford Brookes University’s School of Law, working alongside law and religion specialists Professor Peter Edge and Craig Allen.
“About 15 years ago the UK Parliament removed the presumption of a public benefit that applied to certain charitable purposes, including the advancement of religion. So charities including religious charitable groups, in England and Wales now have to prove they provide a public benefit through their charitable purposes,” Professor Ridge says.
“There was lots of debate about incorporating this change into Australia’s Charity Act of 2013 but the Commonwealth retained the presumption of public benefit. The question of whether religious groups should prove they provide a public benefit in return for charitable status is still very topical in Australia, so I’m keen to speak to UK lawyers on how the changes there are affecting such groups.
“In Canada I’ll be a visitor at Victoria University’s Centre for Studies in Religion and Society, and will meet people at the law school there and elsewhere who study charity law and religion.
“The law I’m interested in covers charity law and human rights law, particularly the intersection of the right to religious freedom, particularly to manifest one’s religious beliefs, with other human rights.
“I’m also interested in not-for-profit law and doctrines such as ‘undue spiritual influence’ that cover a religious believer’s gifts to a religious leader or a religious group.
“The law regulating religious financing raises really important questions about how religion and state coexist in a secular society.”
Professor Ridge has been interested in such questions throughout her academic career. As a young academic, she did an empirical study of the NSW Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia. The Synod allowed her to interview clergy and church members about the Church’s code of ethics and giving practices.
Professor Ridge’s future research will include a focus on Pentecostal Christian megachurches and their approach to wealth-generation.
“A lot of the time we think of religions as being about a simple lifestyle or poverty as a good thing, but some Pentecostal Christian groups accept prosperity theology, essentially that ‘God wants you to be rich,’” she says.
“How do we protect religious believers from exploitation of spiritual influence for financial gain in such contexts? Even rational people who are well and can manage their affairs normally, may become more vulnerable in the practice of their religious faith.”
Professor Ridge hopes to have answers in late 2019, and eventually turn her findings into a book.
Originally published on 14 November on the ANU College of Law website.