Tax Exempt Status of Religious Institutions

Will Mirewood

In this post-modern era secular and atheist groups need to be more vocal in discussing, debating and being skeptical of the religious assumptions and accommodations that have been entrenched in Canadian society and public policy.

One of the big debates that I don’t see a lot of traction on is the “Tax Exempt Status” of religious institutions. As you well know, Churches across Canada have the ability to become a “non-profit corporation” for anywhere between $40 to $250. This allows organizations to evade property tax, and receive charitable donations that are non-taxable.

It has long been assumed that “The advancement of religion” provides a tangible benefit to the public. While organizations that address other acceptable charitable purposes like “The relief of poverty, advancement of education, etc” must make annual reports on their actions, by assuming “the advancement of religion” serves the public interest, Canadian citizens are essentially forced to subsidize religious activities without any accountability.

Our government assumes that establishing and maintaining buildings for worship and religious use benefits the community and greater public interest, and debates around this assumption have NOT entered into the mainstream political arena. Since our country’s infrastructure is rapidly aging, and often times underfunded, the religious organizations that utilize this infrastructure are being given a free pass on using it.

Whats more, this has been relatively poorly studied in Canada. By looking at the USA, we can see that the charitable status can, and has been abused by religious individuals and that it reduces an estimated $26.2 billion annually from the property tax base. While we don’t know what this number looks like in Canada, we have documented an excess of scandals and abuses perpetuated by religious institutions in our country. This includes child abuse, sex scandals, financial scandals, and widespread misinformation (such as anti-vaccination).

There is one source (1996) that claims that as much as $160 million tax dollars are lost to religious organizations in Canada (they extrapolate this from an assessment for properties in Greater Vancouver – The God Business: Questioning Tax Exemptions) and some communities have actively pressed religious organizations to justify their benefit to the general public (A taxing time for churches and social groups. Should churches and religious organizations continue to receive automatic tax exemptions?), but the vast majority of our society accepts the assumption that churches automatically merit a tax exemption.

We also know that the government requires registered charities to act within the legal framework and not be contrary to public policy (Canada Revenue Agency: Registered charity) and yet, some religious institutions actively work against public policy.

With the costs of our infrastructure and burdens on municipal governments on the ride, this issue should be brought into the mainstream. Groups like yours should send out petitions, encourage debate and facilitate conversations on this subject. If churches cannot afford to be sustainable on their own, why should all Canadians be forced to support them for an assumed public benefit? Should we not hold religious organizations accountable and force them to demonstrate a benefit to the public before subsidizing their activities? We the public should enjoy full accountability for all church operations.

We need groups like yours to network with comparable groups, start petitions (, bring awareness to this issue, put pressure on elected officials and every layer of government.. as well as pointing out the different benefits of taxing these organizations and/or requiring them to demonstrate their contribution to the greater public.

Canadian secular and atheist groups need to plan actions relating to this issue.

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