Pentecostal church given $660,000 in jobkeeper, then returns 3620% increase in profit

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<span>Photograph: Anita Nicholson/Alamy Stock Photo</span>
Photograph: Anita Nicholson/Alamy Stock Photo

A wealthy Pentecostal church was handed $660,000 in jobkeeper payments and later posted a 3620% increase in profit and a $1.2m increase in revenue.

Hope Unlimited Church, a global church that began on the New South Wales Central Coast, revealed in filings to the charity regulator that it posted a $1.6m profit last year while receiving $660,000 in jobkeeper payments.

The result was a huge increase to the $43,355 profit it posted in 2019.

Revenues for the church also grew throughout the pandemic’s first year, increasing from $2.8m in 2019 to $4m in 2020.

The church is led by Mark and Darlene Zschech, a well-known Christian singer, who spent 25 years alongside Brian and Bobbie Houston at Hillsong, before breaking away to form a new church.

Among the church’s supporters is Liberal MP Lucy Wicks, who has attended the church, spoken on stage, praised its work in parliament and described Mark and Darlene Zschech as “incredible people”.

Churches, similar to other charities, were eligible for jobkeeper, if they forecasted a decline of 15% in revenue between March and September last year.

The ABC has previously reported that about 3,500 religious entities were given $627m in jobkeeper payments until March, when the scheme ended. It reported that dozens of the country’s biggest churches and religious groups did so while remaining in surplus.

Related: More than $500k in jobkeeper given to Margaret Court’s Pentecostal church

HopeUC was approached for comment.

The church has built a global following through campuses in India and the US. Its filings with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission show a decline in revenue from speaking engagements and events in 2020.

But the significant increase in “legacy offerings” and “online campus giving” more than made up for the shortfall.

The government has been under pressure to claw back money from entities that received jobkeeper but later avoided any decline in revenue.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has previously said the government would welcome religious groups paying back the money if they are able to.

Initially, priests and other religious practitioners weren’t eligible for Jobkeeper, but Frydenberg amended the eligibility rules in May last year to ensure they could receive the money.

Monash University law professor, Luke Beck, has previously argued that doing so was almost certainly unconstitutional. Beck said the high court had made it clear that the government could not directly fund religious activities.

“If the matter ever got to court, the taxpayer-funded priests amendment would almost certainly be struck down as invalid,” he wrote in a piece for the university’s news publication, Lens.

A Senate inquiry has been examining a Greens proposal to claw back Jobkeeper from companies earning more than $50m a year, which claimed the subsidies despite later increasing their revenue.

At a hearing on Friday, the Australian Taxation Office revealed it had reviewed the eligibility of 1,600 entities, including 480 large businesses, and found 95% were eligible.

The ATO had also stopped about $767m from being paid through eligibility checks.

“We have identified $470m in overpayments of which we have recovered $194m and are pursuing $89m, with $6m in dispute; and have determined not to pursue $180m,” the ATO said.

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