Saturday, August 2, 2014

Church, State and Taxes

Much has been made of how the CRA required Oxfam Canada to change its charitable purpose from the "prevention" of poverty to "relieving" poverty. Most people don't know that there are only four charitable purposes that allow groups to issue tax receipts: The relief of poverty, the advancement of religion, the advancement of education and for community good. Some people are wondering why, in a secular country like Canada, the advancement of religion is still considered a charitable purpose, as I wrote in 2013.

Every Sunday at my church, we take an offering. Every week, people give. That's a good thing. But should we get a tax receipt for it?

That's a question being raised by the Canadian Secular Alliance, a national organization dedicated to promoting church-state separation and the neutrality of government in matters of religion.

According to the Canada Revenue Agency, charities can issue a tax receipt to donors if they are involved in alleviating poverty, advancing education, advancing religion or providing other benefits for the community. 

Of those four categories, the Alliance wonders why -- in our increasingly secular society -- religion is still listed as a charitable purpose.

In a 2012 submission to the standing committee on finance, the Alliance called on the government to remove advancing religion as an eligible charitable activity.

"We recognize many religious charities perform activities of public benefit like poverty alleviation," said Alliance president Greg Oliver in a statement on the organization's website.

"Any organization performing genuine charitable acts should be granted tax incentives for those -- but only those -- activities."

Following its submission, the Alliance received a letter from the Minister of finance. 

In the letter, the Minister stated the Canadian government's position is that "providing charitable status for the advancement of religion is based on the presumption that religion provides people with a moral and ethical framework for living and plays an important role in building social cohesion."

Phew! People of faith can breathe easier, knowing they will continue to receive a deduction for donations to religious groups. Or can they?

No. This issue isn't going away. 

As Canada grows more secular, more people will wonder why some should get tax receipts for giving to pay for a pastor's salary, repairs to the church roof, educating about religion or --  especially contentious in a pluralistic society -- for efforts by one group to convert people to another faith.

Then there's the matter of property taxes; some groups, like the Victoria, B.C. Secular Humanist Association, wonder why places of worship should be exempt.

Only those groups that can "justify these exemptions through their local charitable work," should benefit from the property tax exemption, the Association states on its website.

Places of worship that only offer "weekly assembly to their memberships" should not be exempt, it states.

For John Pellowe, CEO of the Canadian Council of Christian Charities, an umbrella group representing 3,200 faith-based charities, religious groups need to take these challenges seriously.

For decades, it was "assumed that religious groups provide a public benefit," he says. But that assumption is increasingly being challenged by those who argue "religion has no place in a secular society."

Today, he says, religious groups need to make a persuasive case for why society benefits from their existence. "They can no longer take it for granted."

One thing religious groups can point to, Pellowe says, is how religious people serve all of society through their giving.

Pellowe points to a report about giving from Statistics Canada showing people who are more religiously active give more than those who aren't to all charities -- not just to religious groups -- and that the just over 16 per cent who attend worship services gave 41 per cent of the total donated to charity in 2010.

Advancing religion produces "engaged and unselfish citizens," he says, adding that by granting religious groups the ability to give tax receipts, the government "isn't supporting religion, but the good that religion does."

In 1999, the Supreme Court ruled that the key concept of public benefit when it came to charitable activity would be subject to society's "current social, moral and economic context." 

As that context changes, religious groups need to pay attention; as Don Hutchinson of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada noted in a column in Faith Today: 

"The matter of public benefit is now assessed more outside the walls of the church than within. To demonstrate religious bodies provide public benefit will require more than worship services and Sunday schools."

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