If a church repeatedly violates public health orders during a pandemic, should it lose its tax-exempt status?
That’s a question on the mind of Sandra Dunham, executive director of development of the Centre For Inquiry Canada, an organization dedicated to fostering a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry and humanist values.
"Why should they enjoy that status if they are snubbing their noses at the law?" she asked, wondering if they should also be able to give tax receipts for donations. "Any charity that defies the law should not be eligible."
Questions like that are among the larger concerns about religion and taxes raised by the Centre in its recent research titled The Cost of Religion in Canada: Exploring Advancement of Religion as a Charitable Purpose.
In the report, the centre notes there are four categories for charitable organizations, developed in the 19th century: the advancement of education, relief of poverty, the advancement of religion, or other purposes beneficial to the community.
When organizations qualify to be a charity in one of these categories, the government assists them financially by allowing them to issue charitable tax receipts and provides tax relief such as paying less property taxes and collecting back GST and HST.
The centre estimates that 32,000 charities fit under the advancement of religion category, most of them places of worship. In 2017 they issued over $7 billion in tax receipts. The lost tax revenue, according to the centre, is estimated between $1.58 billion and $3 billion each year.
That lost revenue is one of the reasons why the centre thinks it is time to phase out that category as a charitable purpose.
"Granting charitable status to organizations that exist solely to advance religion requires that every Canadian subsidize religion," the report states. "This violates the Supreme Court ruling that the right to freedom of religion includes the right to be free from religion."
Another reason the centre thinks it’s time to phase out the advancement of religion category is because it "doesn’t make sense today in a secular Canada, especially as participation in religion declines and fewer and fewer are attending services," Dunham said.
She is particularly against giving tax breaks to groups that do evangelistic or missionary activity.
"Why should Canadians pay to spread the doctrine of a particular religion, or for those that try to get others to switch religions?" she asked. "Donors should not be eligible for a tax receipt for that."
The report also raises questions about what the Canada Revenue Agency calls the "public benefit" test. That is, to qualify as a charity an organization must show its activities benefit the public-at-large — an organization can’t exist only to benefit a small group of people.
"Our argument is taxpayers should not pay for things that benefit only members of a religious group," said Dunham, noting Canadians can’t get a tax receipt for supporting a gardening or tennis club.
And if the government believes it is still legitimate for places of worship to get charitable status for serving their members, then "give it to garden clubs, too," she said.
Dunham acknowledges many religious groups provide valuable community services. And she realizes there’s no political will in Ottawa to change the situation. All she and the centre want to do now is to start a discussion.
"We’re not saying religion is a bad thing, but it shouldn’t be supported by those who don’t participate in it and the government should not be involved in supporting it," she said.
Ray Pennings, executive vice president of Cardus, a Christian think tank, disagrees with the report. For him, it isn’t possible to separate the teachings of religion — to be generous and service minded — from the actions of religious people.
"Religious Canadians work for the good of others because their deep faith calls them to do so as an act of worship and because they are driven by the teaching and direction they receive in their houses of worship," he said, noting the Senate reaffirmed the advancement of religion as a legitimate charitable purpose in 2019.
"Their charitable work for the wider community comes as a result of the advancement of religion, not in spite of it," he added.
John Pellowe, CEO of the Canadian Centre for Christian Charities, agreed, adding that all Canadians benefit from the generosity of the religiously-minded.
Pellowe cited Statistics Canada research showing the more religious someone is, the more they give, including to non-religious charities, and they give almost double what non-religious people donate.
"What makes these religious Canadians so generous?" he asked. "The teachings and practices found in places of worship inspire them to be better members of society."
Both Pennings and Pellowe cited the findings of the Halo Project, which show religion’s annual contribution to Canadian society is worth over $67 billion through things like daycare, substance abuse treatment, supporting immigrants and refugees, assisting homeless people, providing food and nutrition programs, as well as offering recreational, meeting and other community space to their neighbourhoods.
For these reasons, "religion is a public good in Canada and the advancement of religion is a legitimate charitable purpose," Pennings said.
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.