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Remarks On Public Funding of Religion

These were the opening remarks by CSA Vice-President Greg Oliver, delivered at the Café Inquiry on Public Funding of Religion on June 5, 2009.

A panel discussion with:
- Hon. Cheri DiNovo, M.P.P. and United Church Minister
- Greg Oliver, Vice-President, Canadian Secular Alliance

Thank you for the introduction.

I may not be a religious man, but if I do consider one thing to be sacred, it is our core democratic principles – ones articulated in our Charter and in other documents around the free world. Among these principles is the idea that all citizens deserve equal rights under the law and in our public institutions, regardless of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, mental or physical disability, or sexual orientation. To not recognize equality rights on any of these grounds is to create a two-tiered citizenship – a society where some citizens are relegated to a lesser status.

We are fortunate enough to live in a country where these rights are constitutionally enshrined and are, for the most part, enforced and celebrated. An unfortunately large percentage of our fellow human beings cannot say the same.  But we still have plenty of room for improvement.

An excellent example of this is the way our government currently subsidizes the advancement of religion through charities. Right now our country uses a common-law test to determine charitable status – there are 4 categories which can qualify an organization: alleviation of poverty, advancement of education, advancement of religion, and other activities deemed beneficial to society by the courts. This test was created in 1891 by the British House of Lords and was primarily influenced by a statute passed in 1601. The U.K. has since abandoned this test, but we are still using it.

For the advancement of religion category, the Canada Revenue Agency states that “there has to be an element of theistic worship, which means the worship of a deity or deities in the spiritual sense. To foster a belief in proper morals or ethics alone is not enough to register a charity under this category”. So, any arguments to be made regarding the benefit of religion due to the promotion of ethics and morals are irrelevant here – the promotion of ethics is not considered charitable, nor is the propagation of any other philosophical outlook. But for anything advancing religion – from congregations, to religious publishers and broadcasters, to seminaries, to missionaries – charitable status is granted and the taxpayer must help cover the bills.

Now, there are certainly many charities with a religious affiliation that perform activities within one of the other three categories – these organizations have been tremendously beneficial to our society, and by all means should be considered charitable. But for organizations whose sole purpose is to propagate religious opinions, the loss to the public purse due to tax credits on donations was over $900 million in 2007. This figure does not even include the cost of lost sales taxes and lost property taxes, which these religious organizations are fully or partially exempt from paying because of their charity status. Using data obtained from the Canada Revenue Agency and other sources, we have calculated that charities whose sole purpose is to propagate religious opinions cost the public purse over a billion dollars per year.

What we have today with our charity law in Canada is a situation where government has taken it upon itself to arbitrarily decide what type of religious belief is preferred. Back at the origin of this law during Elizabethan times, the Church of England was the only legally recognized religious institution. It’s not too surprising that a theocratic monarchy would disregard equality rights.

Now we live in a pluralistic, representative democracy, so our government extends this benefit to all major religions, ironically to prevent the tyranny of the majority. Government has decided that it should not decide which religion is best, because it is obviously too difficult for decision-makers to maintain objectivity. Hypocritically, this logic apparently does not apply when determining whether religious belief is preferred to no religious belief at all. The decision appears to have been made: the government has decided that membership in the “theist club” is best, and promoting religion must be subsidized with all Canadians’ taxes.

As of last year’s Harris-Decima Poll, Canada was comprised of 23% non-believers and 77% believers. If it were the other way around – which might be the case, one day – would believers think it was legitimate for public tax dollars to be used by government to promote atheism? Of course they wouldn’t, and nor would we.

There is currently widespread debate about whether religion is, all things considered, good or bad for our society. Many argue that religion gives people great comfort, and can inspire acts of great generosity and kindness. But many non-theistic philosophies also give people great comfort, and non-religious Canadians routinely draw on the strength of their conscience to perform acts of great generosity and kindness. Why does theism deserve special status in the marketplace of ideas? Why do religions, alone among all ideologies, deserve to receive public funds to ensure their propagation? It also goes without saying that religion has a dark side – we all recognize that the excesses of religion are the cause of much human suffering. Given the lack of consensus on whether religion is on balance beneficial to society, it is wrong for our government to make the sweeping decision that using Canadians’ tax dollars to promote religion is in the public interest.

Believers should be completely free to promote religious opinions in our democracy’s marketplace of ideas – but taxpayers should not be paying for it.