Factsheet: Religious charities

This factsheet explains:

  • the ACNC's registration process for religious charities, including:
    • charities that were automatically registered because of previous endorsement by the ATO
    • the need for some religious charities to confirm their charitable purpose, and
    • registrations for new religious charities
  • the ongoing obligations for registered religious charities, including reporting and notifying the ACNC of changes
  • exemptions for some religious charities (basic religious charities)
  • joint and collective reporting, and
  • lodging forms on behalf of other charities.

Being registered with the ACNC

Religious charities that were previously recognised (endorsed) as charities by the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) were automatically registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (the ACNC).

Check your charity's status – is it registered?

Check if your organisation was automatically registered by searching the ACNC Register.

When the ACNC started, your religious charity's information may have been transferred from the ATO and the Australian Business Register to form its initial entry on the ACNC Register. If your charity was automatically registered, and you haven’t provided us with your charity details, do this by logging in to the ACNC Charity Portal.

Confirm your charity’s purpose as ‘advancing religion’

We need confirmation of its charitable purpose (as the ‘subtype’ of ‘advancing religion’) so your charity can:

  • continue to receive additional charity tax benefits (such as fringe benefits tax exemptions) associated with being a registered religious institution
  • be eligible to be a basic religious charity (other requirements apply).

Attention:You need to know! If your religious charity is not listed with the ‘subtype’ of ‘advancement of religion’ (see ‘sub-entity type’ on your charity’s entry of the ACNC Register) and you want to continue to receive associated tax benefits, please contact us to change your charity’s subtype.

Your charity’s ‘responsible persons’

You need to tell the ACNC who your charity’s ‘responsible persons’ are. Only their names and positions will be available on the ACNC Register. These people are the members of your religious charity’s governing body. This is the group of people who have ultimate responsibility for overseeing the charity’s operations and making sure it is working towards achieving its charitable purpose.

If your religious charity is incorporated, its governing documents and any relevant legislation are likely to set out who your responsible persons are. If it is unincorporated, you will need to consider who the members of your governing body are – these will be its responsible persons.

If your religious charity has a central governing body but branches or parishes in many locations it may be less clear who the appropriate ‘responsible persons’ are, whether your charity is incorporated or unincorporated. We suggest that you contact your denomination administrative office because that office may have made a decision about which group of people is responsible for the governance of your religious charity.

Your charity’s ‘governing documents’

The ACNC will also ask for copies of your charity’s ‘governing documents’ (such as constitution, rules or trust deed). Sometimes identifying your governing documents can be harder if your charity is unincorporated, such as for some religious organisations. For example, churches may not have a standard, single set of documents as its governing documents.

You need to identify the kind of documents that:

  • show that your charity is a not-for-profit
  • show your charity’s charitable purpose, and
  • give information about how your charity is governed.

It may be that your governing documents are a reference to the legislation that creates your organisation, or to church or canon law. You only need to send the ACNC the reference, rather than the full copy of such laws. You can download the template governing document, complete the details and upload it through the registration process or the Charity Portal (once registered).

If your charity is part of a larger religious organisation, we suggest you contact your denomination administrative office because that office may have made a decision about which documents are your charity’s relevant governing documents.

The responsible person’s name and position and the governing documents will be published on the public ACNC Register.

Self-assessing religious institutions 

Attention:You need to know! The deadline to opt-in to register with us (for religious organisations that previously self-assessed as religious institutions) has now expired. If your religious organisation is not registered with us and you want to receive associated tax benefits, please apply to register with us.

Find out more in the ATO’s guidance on non-profits and read about registering with the ACNC.

Other religious organisations not registered

If your religious organisation is not registered as a charity (for example, because it is a new organisation) but you wish to register it you can apply to register online.

When applying to register, religious organisations (including churches) may wish to select ‘the advancement of religion’ as their charitable purpose and ‘religious activities’ as one of their charitable activities.

The ‘advancement of religion’ involves belief in a supernatural being, thing or principle and acceptance of canons of conduct which give effect to that belief.

Religious organisations may also select other recognised charitable purposes they have, such as to reduce poverty, the distribution of money or goods for other charitable purposes such as community welfare purposes. Keep in mind that if your organisation has a separate charitable purpose additional to the advancement of religion it will not be entitled to be a ‘basic religious charity’ (see below).

Generally, to be a charity, an organisation’s purpose must be for the benefit of the public. Under the law, closed or contemplative religious orders are seen to have this benefit if they regularly undertake prayerful intervention at the request of members of the public.

Find our more about registering your charity.

Ongoing obligations of registered religious charities

Registered charities have ongoing obligations to maintain their registration, including providing information to the ACNC, and complying with governance standards. 

‘Basic religious charities’ are exempt from some of these obligations.

Exemptions for basic religious charities

What is a basic religious charity?

A basic religious charity is a registered charity that meets all of the following requirements:

  • it is registered as a subtype of charity for the advancement of religion
  • it could not be registered as any other subtype of charity (for example, could not also be registered for the subtype of advancing education)
  • it is not a body corporate registered under the Corporations Act 2001, an Indigenous corporation (under the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006), a corporation registered under the Companies Act 1985 of Norfolk Island, or an incorporated association in any state or territory 
  • it is not endorsed as a DGR itself (however it can be endorsed to operate DGR funds, institutions or authorities as long as their total revenue is less than $250 000 for the particular financial year)
  • the ACNC has not allowed it to report as part of a group, and
  • it has not received more than $100 000 in government grants in the current financial year or either of the previous two financial years.

The second requirement that the religious charity not be able to be registered as any other subtype refers to its charitable purposes. If it has additional, separate purposes, it will not be entitled to be a basic religious charity. However, if a charity’s activities are ancillary to (and part of) the purpose of advancing religion, it does not need to register a separate charitable purpose. For example, religious education as part of the ordinary course of promoting religious principles in a religious community need not be a separate charitable purpose of advancing education. But if a religious charity establishes a day school, this would have a separate charitable purpose.

Also, compassionate activities in the ordinary course of the work of a religious community may not be a separate charitable purpose of relief of poverty or the disadvantaged. However, if a religious charity establishes a welfare agency, this would have a separate charitable purpose.

What obligations are basic religious charities exempt from?

Basic religious charities have to notify us of certain changes and submit an annual information statement each year, but they are not required to:

  • answer the financial questions in the 2014 (or any future) Annual Information Statement regardless of size
  • submit annual financial reports regardless of size
  • comply with any governance standards.

Also, the ACNC does not have the power to suspend or remove a member of a basic religious charity's governing body (a 'responsible person').

Read more about when a religious charity is a 'basic religious charity'.

Joint and collective reporting

Religious charities may be part of complex structures. A group of charities can apply to the ACNC to make a single report together. This is called being a ‘reporting group’. The reporting group can lodge information statements and financial reports together (joint reporting). Groups of charities can also ask to report on a basis other than by charity (collective reporting) – for example, related charities could report by activity types. A charity cannot be a 'basic religious charity' if it reports as part of a group.

Read more about group reporting.

Lodging forms on behalf of other charities

An authorised agent can lodge approved forms on behalf of a charity. This usually requires the charity and the agent to prepare an authority allowing the agent to declare that information in the form is true and correct.

However, there is a specific provision in the ACNC Act that may affect some religious charities. A registered charity can act as an agent on behalf of another registered charity without having to complete the usual authorisations and declarations – what we call a ‘lodging entity’.

A registered charity can only act as a lodging entity in this way if:

  • it can legally change the governing rules of another registered charity in relation to a topic that the form covers, and
  • the return, notice, statement, application or other document provided to the ACNC is related to that topic.

For example, for religious organisations, the diocesan administration office may be able to change the charity’s rules under canon law.

Case study

The Sleepy Hills Spiritual Centre is a a faith-based charity that provides religious worship to people living in Sleepy Hills. The centre is affiliated with a larger organisation called the Spiritual Centres Network that acts as a peak body for several affiliated centres. Each organisation is a registered charity.

The Sleepy Hills Spiritual Centre is governed by the rules set out in its ‘charter’. This document is its governing document. Under the charter, the centre has a governance committee made up of their minister of religion and four other people from the Sleepy Hills community appointed by the Spiritual Centres Network. These five people are the responsible persons of the Sleepy Hills Spiritual Centre.

The Spiritual Centres Network also has the authority to make changes to the governing documents of any of its affiliated centres (such as their charters). Because of this, the Spiritual Centres Network may lodge forms on behalf of its affiliates, on topics covered by the authority to change the governing documents. This authority allows the network to be a 'lodging entity’ for those affiliated centres.