Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association

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T&T Humanist Association statement on Benny Hinn visit

Published in Trinidad Express • 15 May 2006 • 769 words

"But why should religious organisations not pay taxes like ordinary citizens, when nearly all of them are, in practice, for-profit institutions?"

In a free market, the exchange of goods benefits the majority of consumers. In the free market of ideas, the rule similarly holds. But what happens when the free market of ideas is skewed by selective economic protectionism?

This is the problem that humanists have with religious organisations, including evangelical pastor Benny Hinn’s multi-million-dollar church business. We have no objection to Mr Hinn being allowed to preach in Trinidad and Tobago. Those who choose to give their hard-earned dollars to Mr Hinn’s ministry presumably do so because they get something in return, even if the return is not the expected healing that is a staple (and invariably unfulfilled) promise of Hinn’s crusades. But, if this is the basis on which the Maha Sabha wants Hinn prosecuted, then its Secretary General Sat Maharaj occupies a glass house, since it was only a few years ago that he and his organisation hailed the supposed drinking of milk by murtis as a supernatural phenomenon intended to bring material benefits to Hindu devotees.

But why should religious organisations not pay taxes like ordinary citizens, when nearly all of them are, in practice, for-profit institutions? This is most blatantly the case in the evangelical churches, where leading pastors invariably drive expensive cars and live in palatial homes. Benny Hinn’s extravagant lifestyle is well documented, but it is only an extreme instance of what is standard in most religious organisations. We do not object to this in itself, but we do object to the tax-free status that allows it.

The effect of this special treatment is that all T&T citizens pay taxes to support religious groups other than their own or, if they are non-believers, to  support religious groups whose tenets they reject on ethical, intellectual, and political grounds. By not taxing the land and property or other money-making  ventures of these organisations, tax dollars that could be spent on health and education are instead spent to finance the buildings and salaries of religious bodies. This, by the by, includes those assets controlled and used for all purposes by Abu Bakr and the Jamaat al Muslimeen.

The TT Humanist Association is asking whether this is the best way to appropriate tax dollars and, further, whether this is fair to all citizens. We do agree that the  money used by religious organizations for charitable endeavours should be exempt  from taxes. But we are concerned that control over what is taxable and what is tax-exempt may be abused. We therefore suggest that the government appoint a commission to look into these issues and report their findings and recommendations to the citizens of T&T.

The members of our Association have devoted some thought to this issue, and come up with some recommendations. We would like to see a complete, constitutionally mandated separation of the State from religion, as is the practice in all developed nations. Some of the practical consequences of this would be:

  1. Complete freedom of religious practice, belief, and propaganda.

  2. No established religion of the State.

  3. No religious organisation shall receive from the State financial grants or subsidies, grants of land or real estate or preferential access to same.

  4. No religious organisation shall be wholly or partially exempt from taxation.

  5. Contributions to religious organisations shall not be subject to full or partial tax relief.  This provision shall not apply to contributions to funds created by religious organisations for specific charitable purposes or disaster relief, provided that the allocation of assistance from such funds is not subject to religious affiliation of the beneficiaries, and provided the management of such funds is subject to public audit.

  6. Public officials shall lend no greater support, in terms of attendance at or addresses to ceremonies or gatherings, to religious organisations than to any other groups or associations of civil society.  On such occasions, public officials shall rigorously refrain from statements endorsing the doctrines of the religion concerned or exhorting the public to follow them.

  7. Media of communication financed by the State shall carry no programmes promoting religion or any religious organisation, except for paid advertisements, clearly identified as such.  This shall not preclude the production of programmes, such as dramas or documentaries, on religious themes.

  8. Media organisations financed by the State shall carry no programmes promoting psychics, mystics, soothsayers, faith healers, etc., and shall carry no advertisements, paid or otherwise, of such persons or activities.

If these recommendations become official policy and standard practice, we can avoid many of the controversies that serve to distract from the more important problems bedevilling our society.

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