The Age - Australia March 13, 2010
Xenophon vows to pursue 'cults'
by MICHAEL BACHELARD
Nick Xenophon will re-write and re-submit his motion for a parliamentary inquiry into Scientology and similar organisations after the South Australian senator declared himself a “stubborn bastard” who would not give up on cult victims.
Both major parties voted to defeat Senator Xenophon's motion last Thursday to inquire into introducing a public benefit test before religions could claim a tax exemption.
But he said he had been encouraged by conversations with some Coalition MPs since the vote to believe they might support a differently worded motion.
Addressing a conference of cult survivors in Brisbane today, Senator Xenophon said the new motion might include a push for police to take criminal action against cults.
Under this provision, cult leaders could be prosecuted for assault for causing psychological harm to their adherents.
He was also attracted to using the Trade Practices Act to prosecute groups for false and misleading conduct if they wrongly claimed to provide therapeutic benefits to their devotees.
“I won't abandon (cult survivors) even though Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott want to. Trying to look away won't make this go away,” Senator Xenophon told the conference.
Senator Xenophon said that he was a member of the Greek Orthodox church, and was certainly not opposed to religion or the freedom of religious belief: “It's not about belief, it's about behaviour,” he said.
“A number of my (Coalition Senate) colleagues have privately spoken to me to say they are sympathetic with my position,” he told The Age.
“I think it gives me hope that it's not over, that there is still some real hope for some sort of inquiry."
The conference has heard a number of heart-rending stories from different religion-based and therapeutic cults. Brisbane Christian Fellowship survivor Helen Pomery told of how the church's leader, Victor Hall, and his acolytes, “the headship”, had systematically separated her from her husband and two of her children. She has not seen them for nine years.
Another man who enrolled in the northern NSW cult, “Personal Mastery Course”, also known as Universal Knowledge and Life Integration Programs, was required to run 10km every day, or 20km for punishment, to meditate, adopt a strict vegan diet and undergo bizarre punishments and rituals for a year.
He narrowly escaped with his family intact, but is now being sued for defamation by the cult leader, Natasha Lakaev simply for “telling the truth,” he said.
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The Sydney Morning Herald - March 13, 2010
Govt urged to back Scientology inquiry
by SUSANNA DUNKERLEY
(AAP) Pressure is mounting on the federal government and opposition to agree to an inquiry into the Church of Scientology, amid claims they are shielding it from abuse allegations for political reasons.
Social commentator Phillip Adams has accused the two major political parties of turning a blind eye to the issue after they joined forces to vote down a parliamentary inquiry into the church's, and other charities', tax-free status last week.
Speaking at the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, Mr Adams said Scientology was a pseudo-religion that shouldn't enjoy charity status in Australia.
He said Australia should follow the example of the United Kingdom, where a strict public-benefit test applies.
"To hear those idiots in the Senate talking about Scientology as a religion when it's a racket is ludicrous," he said at what organisers called the largest gathering ever held in Australia under the banner of atheism.
"It just makes you realise how wonderfully protected the group actually is."
Mr Adams told the audience of atheists, sceptics, humanists, feminists and secularists that Scientology was "a dreadful outfit of excesses and cruelties".
"And here in Australia we are continuing to turn a blind eye to it."
Independent senator Nick Xenophon, who called for the inquiry, will try to launch another one this week focusing on allegations against the church, including claims of forced abortions, imprisonment in boot camps and separation of families.
Former Australian Democrats leader Lyn Allison, who is also speaking at the three-day conference, says she doubts the inquiry will get up.
Politicians were scared the challenge to tax-free status would spread to other religions, the former senator said.
"Whilst individually they (the government and coalition) probably don't like Scientology, they do not want to open up Pandora's box," she told AAP.
Ms Allison, who now works for a number of human rights groups, was critical of the federal government's position that an inquiry was not needed because the tax-free status of charities was already being looked at through ongoing tax inquiries.
"We've had tax inquiries in the past, and the findings were that there was no case for revisiting the tax exemptions for charities. Any new inquiry is unlikely to be any different," Ms Allison said.
Fellow presenter Max Wallace, who has written extensively about tax exemption for religious groups in Australia, says tens of millions of dollars in taxpayers' money is handed to the churches each year.
"Exemption from taxation for churches is a 17th century idea that has no bearing on the 21st century," he told the conference.
But he noted one anomaly in Australia, the UFO-based religion known as Raelianism.
"The Raelians believe that there are extraterrestrial beings in another galaxy. The tax office decided that because those extraterrestrial beings were material, and not supernatural, it didn't fall into the definition of religion for tax exemption."
The conference, including talks by popular science writer and atheist Richard Dawkins and controversial ethicist Peter Singer, continues. All 2500 tickets to the March 12-14 event sold out in advance.
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ABC News - Australia March 14, 2010
Xenophon ramps up anti-Scientology crusade
By Tim Leslie
Crusading Senator Nick Xenophon has continued to pressure the Government to crack down on The Church of Scientology, addressing an anti-cult conference in Brisbane today.
Speaking at the the Cult Information and Family Support Group Queensland Conference, Senator Xenophon slammed the Government and the Opposition for their cowardice in not supporting his motion to launch an inquiry into The Church of Scientology and its tax free status.
"As many of you know the two major parties joined forces to block this inquiry, that is despite the fact that so many Australian victims of Scientology have shared so many moving and disturbing stories with me," he said.
"I believe there is a certain cowardice in turning your back on people who ask for help and ask just to be heard - Kevin Rudd said he wants to wait for the Henry tax review, as excuses go that's pathetic.
"How dare they - and I include the Government and the Opposition in this - make this about reviews and processes and procedures.
"The shameful thing is that when you make it just about process, you ignore and damage real people."
The Senator's words were met with rapturous applause from the audience, many of whom have been personally involved in organisations such as Scientology.
Stories of pain
The conference also heard from former cult members, including Helen Pomery who has not seen her family in nine years, since leaving the Brisbane Christian Fellowship.
"I bear witness to the reality and the power of coercive persuasion and mind control, because I live with its impact every day of my life," she said.
Ms Pomery told how the elders in the Church had turned her husband and her family against her.
"It is clear that my children now believe that I deserve to be treated with repulsion because now I have left God's holy order order of headship," she said.
"They are fully committed to the elders, the men in turn praise them for being good humble obedient slaves to righteousness, because they have proved they will sacrifice their mother for the sake of the gospel."
Senator Xenophon applauded the courage of former members in coming forward.
"I know a lot of politicians want to pretend this isn't happening, but good people spoke out, they trusted me with their stories and I will not abandon them, even if it seems Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott want to," he said.
"The hardest thing for a victim to do is to speak out. The apathy of our politicians makes it even harder."
The coverage of the allegation levelled against the Church of Scientology has prompted a number of former members to come forward, including Keryn who detailed a childhood of abuse in Sea Org, an arm of Scientology.
Senator Xenophon said he was not put off by the lack of support for the bill, and planned to reintroduce an amended version next week.
He called on attendees to travel to Canberra and tell their stories the MPs in person, saying a number of his colleagues had approached him after the bill was voted down to express their concerns.
"I think if we can get a group of people out the front of Parliament House and actually eyeball the politicians and knock on their doors on Wednesday and Thursday it would be very powerful," he said.
Accepting the limitations of an investigation into Scientology's tax-free status, the South Australian Senator said there needed to be a wide-scale approach to limiting the damage such organisations can cause in Australia.
Senator Xenophon also said he would raise the idea of incorporating cult education into the new national curriculum, after several people attending the conference spoke of need to give people a better understanding of the methods used by cults to lure people in.
"We've got a debate about the national curriculum now, and I think it's a good debate," he said.
"[If we can] come up with a set of proposals ... the sorts of things that should be taught [so] that people are wary of that sort of behaviour, and what people can be roped into, I think that's a good thing and I will personally take that up to Julia Gillard."
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The Age - Australia May 13, 2010
Xenophon fails in Scientology bid
INDEPENDENT senator Nick Xenophon has vowed not to give up on his quest to bring the controversial Church of Scientology to book.
He failed in a bid to have Parliament approve a public benefit test to assess the aims and activities of entities receiving tax exemptions.
Yesterday, the Senate voted 28-6 to reject the move, his third attempt to have parliament act on the church. ''A public benefit test currently exists in the United Kingdom and this amendment would introduce a similar process here,'' Senator Xenophon said.
''It seems only fair that an entity must meet this public benefit test if it's to be propped up … by the Australian taxpayer.''
Senator Xenophon told other senators that he would be relentless in pursuing a just outcome for the victims of Scientology.
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ABC Online - Australia July 19, 2010
by Lucy Saunders
It's tax time again. In some ways filling out your tax return is a rewarding experience. It brings a vague sense of good citizenship and (much more importantly), often a sweet refund. It is however an undeniable pain.
Getting all your group certificates together, remembering your various identity numbers, realising e-tax won't work on your computer, finding a form, losing the form, filling out a new form, remembering to post the form - it can all get quite complicated. And this is just for an individual tax return - and one that isn't dealing with particularly large numbers, either.
Imagine how complex the process must be for professional tax evaders - sorry, 'legal tax minimisers' - as many of Australia's super-rich appear to be. And how much more complex still it must be for large corporations, most of which are pretty focused on hanging on to as much as possible.
There are some large organisations, however, for whom 30 June is just another day. These are, of course, churches.
Religious organisations are exempt from income, payroll and land tax as a direct result of their status as 'believers in a supernatural being, thing or principle', using the tax office's definition. There are over 17,000 religious organisations recognised by the ATO; in 2006 they cost state, local and federal governments over $500 million in lost revenue.
Religion's tax-exempt status has come under fire recently in the Federal parliament. South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon is proposing an amendment to the tax laws that would require religious and charitable organisations to pass a 'public benefit test' - and the benefit must extend to the general public, not just members of the organisation.
It's not an enormously high bar - certainly not for legitimate charities. Basically, the amendment removes the presumption that the promotion of religion is in and of itself a public good. Sadly Xenophon seems to have abandoned his usual pun-based approach to campaigning in this crusade against Scientology - a missed opportunity to encourage Australia to 'practice safe sects'.
A lot of the debate around this amendment has focused on Scientology, as Xenophon intended. And there's no reason it shouldn't. Scientology is both entertainingly crazy on the surface and enormously creepy on closer examination. It provides none of the charitable benefits generally associated with religion - aside from personality tests that seem to always come up with the answer 'your horrible personality could be improved by Scientology' - and is dogged with accusations of separating families and engaging in cult-like persecutions of those trying to leave.
But Scientology is hardly the only religion benefiting from the tax exemption. Take Hillsong, a mega-church known above all for its high-tithing, money-focused ways. The church spends only a fraction of its multi-million dollar income on its charitable arm and provides little in the way of pastoral care - Pastor Brian Houston, who donates his salary back to the church (coincidentally avoiding income tax), previously owned a lovely holiday home in the Hawkesbury, but it was sold to a Hillsong-related entity of which Houston is a director. Where Scientology sells dubious courses, Hillsong - and most other churches - base a large portion of their income on tax-free tithes.
Although, due to its broad connection with Christianity, Hillsong is less immediately confronting than Scientology. Similarly, is Scientology's prohibition on psychiatric care any more irrational and irresponsible than Jehovah's Witness views on blood transfusions, or the Christian Scientist approach to medicine generally? Auditing, thetans and aliens are strange things to believe in, but arguably so is a large invisible man in the sky who is always watching you - no, not Santa. And let's not forget the 'elaborate fancy dress party' vibe that is integral to the Catholic Church.
Freedom of religion means that people are free to believe in any or all of these things, and participate in these organisations as they choose. The real question is whether ordinary taxpayers should be required to subsidise this participation without any guarantee of a broader public benefit, which is the practical effect of the tax exemption. Xenophon's public benefit test will mean that religious organisations will be assessed on the merits of the tangible benefits they provide - not a huge hurdle for the majority of churches.
Further, a public benefit test means that when the government is debating whether Scientology or Seventh Day Adventists should receive a tax exemption, the question will no longer be 'is it a religion'. The idea of a government deciding what is and isn't a valid religion seems inconsistent with the separation of church and state. Under this system, I would still be free to travel the country spreading the light of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster - I just have to pay tax on any money I con out of people on the way, which seems fair.
The amendment will also make sure the separation of church and state cuts both ways. Some churches like to have their cake and eat it too - an example is the Exclusive Bretheren, a sect that has gone as far as to fund political advertisements, and is widely held to have exercised an enormous degree of influence over the Howard government. They seem strangely opinionated for a group that doesn't allow its members to vote. This kind of political activism from a religious group is not the kind of thing the public purse should be subsidising.
Xenophon's amendment may have been intended as a back-door route to getting at Scientology after his calls for a public inquiry failed, but its broader implications are of potentially great benefit to Australian society. With an atheist PM and all-time low numbers of Australians active in religion, it seems that this is an appropriate time to address a lingering inconsistency in our tax laws.
All hail the Spaghetti Monster!
Lucy Saunders is an Arts/Law student at the University of Sydney.
*Editors note: This article originally stated Pastor Brian Houston owned a holiday home in the Hawkesbury, but has since been updated.
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