The government could give funding to Catholic schools, he said, because the money was for an educational rather than religious purpose. Religious practitioners were eligible for the $1500-a-fortnight JobKeeper payment only if they were performing “activities in pursuit of the individual’s vocation as a religious practitioner”, which Associate Professor Beck said posed a constitutional problem.
Government spending on religious services has historically been contentious, with challenges over funding for school chaplains in public schools reaching the High Court.
But Anne Twomey, an eminent constitutional scholar at the University of Sydney, said it was “extremely unlikely” paying JobKeeper to priests would breach the constitution on the basis of those decisions.
Professor Twomey said the priests were not holding a public office and “one could hardly claim” JobKeeper was establishing a national religion.
Not-for-profit institutions, including religious bodies, are eligible for Jobkeeper if they have lost 15 per cent of their turnover while most businesses require a 30 per cent decline. Hundreds of religious practitioners across NSW alone are on JobKeeper across several denominations and faiths.
When religious services were suspended at the height of the lockdown, many institutions reported a drop in donations. A spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, which is receiving JobKeeper for its priests, said at the same time demand for charitable and social works had risen significantly.
“Many [parishes] had to quickly move masses and other religious services online as well as respond to increased requests for pastoral care and material support for those severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as continuing care of the sick and dying, elderly and isolated,” the spokesman said.
Places of worship have since reopened, with a limit of one person per four square metres in NSW and Victoria allowing 20 people in each area of a venue and 50 for funerals.
Greens leader Adam Bandt called on the government to release the legal advice it received about the JobKeeper extension.
“Hearing that the government may have been unlawfully making JobKeeper payments for religious activities will come as a kick in the guts to the millions of workers missing out on JobKeeper,” he said.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said religious practitioners were entitled to the payment because the government had closed places of worship to control the spread of the virus.
Associate Professor Beck said it was unlikely anyone would dispute the payments due to the cost of High Court challenges and because generally only affected parties had the right to launch a case.
Get our Morning & Evening Edition newsletters
Nick Bonyhady is industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based between Sydney and Parliament House in Canberra.