A reclusive religious sect that forbids contact with outsiders and shuns the use of radios, televisions, newspapers, computers and mobile phones has had a $380,000 rates debt wiped.
The Supreme Court decision ends a decade-long stoush between the Exclusive Brethren – a splinter group from the Church of England – and the Brisbane City Council. The council questioned the group’s religious status and claimed it should revert to full general rates.
Court documents show the council believed the group did not meet by-law exemption guidelines as its Bulimba premises gave no indication the building was used for worship and members of the public were not welcome to ceremonies.
Councillor Graham Quirk said the group was abusing the exemption privilege and believed the decision had now opened the door for other exclusive fringe groups to push for rates exemptions.
“The question is not the activities of the Exclusive Brethren but if the ratepayers should subsidise them. The council took the opinion that under the definitions they do not qualify for rate remission (because) we do not think you can walk into a facility and take your place to worship as a member of the general public,” Cr Quirk said.
BCC misses out on $4.3 million for non-rateable properties associated with religious groups every year.
The Supreme Court finding effectively wipes the $380,000 debt accrued between 1994 and 2004 on the group’s headquarters, a large industrial warehouse-type red brick windowless building enclosed by secure fencing on a 2.37ha property at 91 Lytton Rd, Bulimba.
In making her decision, Justice Debra Mullins accepted testimony from members that the group was open to outsiders but noted that almost all sect ceremonies barred the general public from attending.
“In considering the evidence, it is relevant that in the current secular times, it is unlikely that the population of Brisbane at large would seek entry to the services of the Brethren,” she said.
“It is not helpful to draw comparisons with the steps taken by other churches to let the public know about their services, when other churches may have a completely different approach to worship or seeking to expand their congregation.”
Justice Mullins waived the debts and awarded costs against the BCC. The Council has not decided whether to appeal the decision.
Brethren trustee Stuart Jensen would make no comment except that “the court has granted our exempt status, as would be granted to any other church”.
However court documents reveal a much clearer picture of the groups belief system.
The Exclusive Brethren, or Gospel Trust No 1, is an ultra secretive offshoot of the super-pious Plymouth Brethren that began in the 1830s.
Constituents are barred from voting, standing for public office, joining unions or clubs, attending university or going to places of public entertainment and military service because it is too “worldly”.
Followers are normally born into the sect, rarely admit newcomers and are mainly employed by sect-owned businesses. Women wear scarves to indicate subservience to their husbands, modest clothes and no make-up.