Ipswich City Council undermines Freedom of Religions using rates

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Ipswich City Council and the Vedanta Centre Springfield 
The Vedanta Centre Springfield - a “non-profit” organisation which provides religious teachings with the aim of offering large scale philanthropic activities - has been slapped with Ipswich City Council rates bill amounting to $625,000.  
The Council claims that this money is owed to them as the owner of a plot of land within Springfield Lakes.   
The Vedanta Centre Springfield (VCS) is part of the global Ramakrishna Movement which has branches in most Australian capital cities. The institution carries out religious, educational and philanthropic activities at all its centres worldwide.  
Its mission in Australia has been recognised by the Australian Tax Office as a “charity” and receives relevant tax exemptions. The Queensland Office of Land Revenue has also recognised the legitimacy of the organisation and has provided exemptions on Stamp Duty and Land Tax on the Land that it received. 
In Queensland, the VCS conducts activities such as yoga, children’s spiritual education classes and self- development classes, from the Gold Coast through to Townsville. Other activities include raising funds for flood relief in Queensland and assisting with funds for drought-stricken farmers throughout Australia. 
The organisation is the owner and custodian of a 20.5Ha parcel of land in Springfield Lakes. Local government regulations state that land less than 20Ha is exempted from Council rates if the land is used for religious, education or community services. 
A master plan for this land was provided and approved by Ipswich City Council in February 2009. This plan outlines a place of worship, a primary school, a community centre, community residences and an institutional residence.  
Despite the contents of the approved Master Plan, Ipswich City Council ruled in 2015 that VCS must pay rates for the land parcel it held.   
In May 2015, VCS subdivided and developed 1.16Ha of land. That development houses a place of worship, a library and a community hall which is used by various religious groups including the Shirdi Sai Group and Seventh Day Adventists Church.  
The balance land has been maintained in its natural state and is currently used for activities such as yoga, meditation, community bush walks. The vacant land use is inextricably connected to the spiritual activities and future religious initiatives of the VCS. 
This has been communicated in depth to the Ipswich City Council, but to no avail.  
Years after the subdivision, the Ipswich City Council agreed to exempt the developed portion of the land only. This ruling was subsequently revoked. In mid-2018, the Council was dissolved, and the State Government appointed an Administrator.  
In the meantime, Council guidelines were revised removing the previously available concessions for land used for religious purposes.  
In mid-2019, Council ruled that the original rates bill for the balance land would be re-instated. Council has been paid rates due up to May 2015 (when subdivision occurred) to abide by State Government regulation which stipulates any property to be exempted must be less than 20 Ha. The subsequent rates remain disputed.  
In its recent decision, Council has stated that the activities undertaken by VCS on the balance land were not ‘sufficient to constitute a use for religious purpose’ within the meaning of the legislation. 
Ipswich City Council has granted rates exemptions to several religious and non-religious bodies. In one instance, a religious institute owning 38Ha of land was provided with a rates exemption.  
When both the Australian Tax Office and Queensland’s Office of State Revenue have recognised VCS as a legitimate “non-profit” organisation, why not Ipswich City Council? Indeed, exemptions have been granted for VCS’ land tax and stamp duty, but not for its rates.  
The Ipswich City Council is established to serve a community, not harm it. A $625,000 rates bill for a “non-profit” organisation will hurt its capacity to develop the land to its intended use in accordance to the master plan for charitable and community works. Furthermore, the decision has stymied further development of the land, as Council maintains a charge on the land for its claimed rates and will not process further subdivisions necessary for development. 
It is in the public interest for Ipswich City Council to support this charitable ambition and seek to assist and achieve it, not to undermine it. With such an inconsistent outlook regarding these decisions, the Council stands to set a dangerous precedent for other non-profit and religious entities and inadvertently threatens the social capital of the people it is meant to serve. 
This also undermines the “freedom of religion” by the Ipswich City Council - which contains several multicultural communities and faiths in its local government boundary. 
Every multicultural community and religious institution that conducts religious and charitable works should be seriously concerned if existing exemptions will be withheld in the same manner as Council’s decision on the VCS.  
The Ipswich City Council should support religious organisations of all faiths and cultures who do charitable works and great community work. 
These institutions provide valuable benefits to the City of Ipswich, including providing community services to those in need. 
Instead of giving these institutions rates relief, the Council has chosen to penalise them. 
Stand up for religious freedom and support religious institutions that carry out much-needed charitable and community works in the City of Ipswich. 
After going to extraordinary lengths to try and resolve this matter, the VCS has reluctantly lodged a judicial review application with the Supreme Court of Queensland to resolve this matter. 
Why should a charitable organisation be forced to do this? Because the Ipswich City Council has lost sight of the public and community interest and has adopted a very narrow opportunistic interpretation of the regulatory framework in order to secure additional revenue at any cost. However, in accordance with VCS’s commitment to reconciliation and mediation, VCS remain hopeful that the dispute can be resolved positively and amicably. 

Thank you for your support.