Many people mistakenly believe a religion or religious institution automatically attracts charitable status. A recent UK Charity Commission ruling on Jediism illustrates one approach to determining whether or not a particular religion can be classified as a charity. We look at this decision below as well as the position in Australia.
Jediism and the UK Charity Commission
According to the Temple of the Jedi Order, Jediism is the worship of the mythology of Star Wars and is the 7th most popular religion in the UK. Recently, the UK Charity Commission rejected an application to grant charitable status to The Temple of the Jedi Order on the basis that Jediism does not promote moral or ethical improvement. The Commission also stated that Jediism lacks the necessary spiritual or non-secular element required for religions. In addition to this, they view that Jediism has an inward focus on its members rather than having a beneficial impact on society. The ruling shows the limitations of the definition of a religious charity in the UK. But what is the law in Australia?
Charitable Law in Australia
In Australia, you must register with the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission (ACNC) to become a charity. Registered charities can access a number of tax concessions and will be listed on the public register of charities. An institution must have a charitable purpose and operate for the public benefit to be eligible. The ACNC will assess whether you have a charitable purpose. You should also include this in your company constitution, next to the not-for-profit clause in your rules.
What is a Religious Charity?
In Australia, the religious, charitable subtype is ‘advancing religion’. The advancement of religion is defined to involve belief in a supernatural being, thing or principle. You must also have rules of conduct which give effect to your organisation’s beliefs.
A charity that advances religion must also demonstrate in its rules and activities that its purpose is for the public benefit. This definition includes closed or contemplative religious orders (e.g. Jediism).
According to The Temple of the Jedi Order, followers believe in a supernatural thing or principle as their belief, based on observance of the Force as a metaphysical power that is fundamental to the universe. They also have rules to follow as the Jedi Doctrine is there to give effect to their beliefs and provide a way of life or philosophy. However, Jediism would likely encounter a similar problem in Australia as in the UK – that is, showing that their purpose is to benefit the public.
While contemplative orders that do not provide public praying or public services are considered to be charities, the ACNC may look at an organisation like the Temple of the Jedi Order and determine that they are only following Jediism as an inspiration. Following Jediism as a way of life may not then meet the public benefit criteria required for advancing charitable religion status.
Are There Other Options?
Sometimes religious organisations have other charitable purposes and can be registered under different charitable subtypes. An example of this is ‘advancing culture’ or ‘advancing education’. Jediism might have some success in registering as an organisation that celebrates the popular culture of the Star Wars franchise. However, they will still have to satisfy the public benefit requirement and show that what they do and their activities assist or are for the public. For example, their activities involve running a museum dedicated to Jediism and Star Wars.
Registering as a charity can be complex if you are not sure which charitable subtype applies to your organisation. Importantly, remember that charities must benefit the public rather than a private or select group of people.