Bill Muehlenberg looks at how a Perth Church is facing $1 million in fines for giving away free food to the poor:
For almost as long as it has been around the Christian church has been up to its ears in helping the poor and needy, and providing all sorts of help in the social arena. And that is for a good reason: Jesus and the early disciples said much about the practical expression of the Christian faith.
I just penned a piece yesterday about the work of the Salvation Army in its early days, and how they knew that preaching the gospel must include meeting the very real needs of those they were ministering to.
So the Salvos were simply doing what the church has always done: showning the love of God by feeding the poor, helping the destitute, providing for the needy, and so on. And churches all over the world are doing exactly the same today.
Yet for some of these churches, it seems such charitable services are frowned upon by some governments and by some bureaucrats. As hard as it is to believe, some churches are actually being attacked by the state for expressing the love of Christ in tangible ways.
Consider this incredible case coming out of Perth. Indeed, consider this incredible headline: “Church faces $1m fine for meals”. The story goes like this:
“A Scarborough church risked a $1 million fine last night by serving its weekly free Sunday meal, after the City of Stirling deemed many of the church’s activities were in breach of local planning regulations.
“Under the planning scheme, Scarborough Baptist Church is allowed to use its land on the corner of Westview Street and Brighton Road as a place of worship and child daycare centre. In a letter sent on September 18, the council identified activities such as serving dinner at weekly Sunday evening services, craft classes, band practice and preschool dance classes as unapproved use of the land.
“These activities mean the 65-year-old church risks a $1 million fine and a further $125,000 fine for each day it is found to be in breach of council regulations.
The council said it was obliged to investigate after receiving complaints from residents over late-night noise and antisocial behaviour such as urination in public.
“Senior pastor Andre van Oudtshoorn said the church had held such activities for years with minimal issues, including the Sunday meal, which often fed the needy. ‘In the 10 years we’ve been running the meal, we’ve twice had an occasion of people who came who were inebriated and we had to ask them to leave,’ he said. ‘We have told the City of Stirling we have a protocol that if we find people like that, we call the ranger. Nobody’s ever caused a disturbance as far as we know’.”
Wow: a million dollar fine for feeding the hungry and helping the needy. Talk about bureaucratic bumbling. Talk about governments overstepping the boundaries. Talk about what seems to be a nasty vendetta against this church. Talk about more gross government incompetence.
In defending themselves the church has put out the following media release:
On 18 September 2012 Scarborough Baptist Church received notification from the City of Stirling requiring the Church to cease all activities (including feeding the needy and running craft and pre-school dance classes) not defined by the City as “religious activities”. The penalty for not complying is an immediate fine of $1,000,000 plus $125,000 per day that the Church fails to comply.
Many of these activities are central to the Church’s pastoral role within the community, and have been operating in the church for years; the craft group, for example, has been holding weekly craft meetings for 35 years, and the evening service and community meal has now been running for nearly a decade.
The City of Stirling has failed to provide any evidence that Scarborough Baptist Church has contravened any local by-laws. Through this Direction, the City has taken upon itself the right to define what constitutes a religious activity. According to the City’s correspondence, religious activities exclude, among others: funerals, weddings, Easter services, youth groups, quiz nights to raise funds for local schools, fêtes and fairs to raise funds for world aid, and the provision of meals and services to the community.
It is the position of Scarborough Baptist Church, in accordance with the separation of Church and State, that local government officials not take it upon themselves to define what a religious activity is, be it in the context of a church, mosque, temple, synagogue, or other place of worship.
It is absolutely mind-boggling that these aggressive bureaucrats could even say something as foolish as demanding the church immediately stop all non-religious activities. The church was absolutely right to say what the secular state regards as non-religious activity the church regards as absolutely vital to its very mission.
Feeding the poor and helping the destitute is of course a religious activity, and an essential one at that. The last thing we need is some secular bureaucrat deciding for a church just what is and what is not religious activity. The next thing you know these guys will be telling churches that preaching the Word of God is not religious activity.
This is nothing other than the beginning steps of sinister persecution of the churches. When the state dictates what a church can and cannot do in terms of its core ministry, then we should all shudder. Of course all totalitarian states have always attempted to do just that.
But the last time I checked, Australia in general, and Perth and particular, were free and democratic places where religious freedom exists. But it looks like some authorities at least are not big fans of either freedom or democracy. And sadly there would be many more like them.
Bill Muehlenberg is a Melbourne based author who lectures part time in ethics, theology and philosophy. He has an interactive blogsite called CultureWatch.