Monday, September 26, 2011

Should non-charitable activities be granted charitable tax exemptions?

This is a piece I wrote for the National Post. It was accepted for publication, then spiked (presumably because the editor did not agree with the conclusion).


Should non-charitable activities be granted charitable tax exemptions?

Revenue Canada recognized over $1 billion in charitable tax credits during 2007 for activities that had nothing to do with housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, or clothing the naked. In fact, according to a survey conducted by Ipsos Reid in September 2010, nearly two-thirds of Canadians believe these billion dollars support ventures that "promote intolerance, exacerbate ethnic divisions and impede social progress."

What endeavour is abhorred by so many Canadians yet receives so much money from the public purse?


In Canada, an organization must pursue at least one of the following four aims to be granted the designation of a charity:
  • The relief of poverty
  • The advancement of education
  • Other purposes to benefit the community that courts deem charitable
  • The advancement of religion
The first three items on the list are in accordance with a general understanding of the term "charitable activities". Whether and how the last would benefit society is far from clear.

Most of the $1,000,000,000 is used for "preaching to the choir," reinforcing the message of the church (or temple or mosque) to those that are already members. How do such activities improve the community as a whole? Some of these funds (at a minimum, $60 million) were claimed by organizations proselytising - actively seeking to convert people to Christianity - and nothing else. How does this benefit the public at large? Would the same societal gains be realized by convincing people to be devotees of Ganesh or Allah?

In 1891, the British House of Lords ruled on what constitutes a charity in a dispute between the tax authorities and the Moravian Church. They developed a common law test, based on the preamble of the 1601 Statute of Charitable Uses (also known as The Statute of Elizabeth). This ruling is the basis for the Canadian government's determination of which organizations are deemed to be charitable in nature. Perhaps it is time for Canada to reconsider whether a decision made in the nineteenth century, itself based on the introduction of a law more than four hundred years old, is the best foundation for taxation practises in 2011.

Though religious feelings have inspired generosity in some followers, the good works of international charities such as Médecins Sans Frontières demonstrate altruism is not found solely within the domain of believers. Conversely, many mainstream religions harbour tremendous antipathy to women, homosexuals, and/or members of other faith communities (and those that belong to none). There is also ample evidence that strong religious sentiment can have a significant detrimental effect on society (as recent decades in Ireland, India and Israel demonstrate, to pick among countries starting with a single letter).

At best, the advancement of religion, in and of itself, would have a neutral net effect on society. In other words, Canada is spending a billion dollars every year for absolutely nothing.

Of course, charitable status is well deserved for groups that run food banks or operate homeless shelters, including those that are faith based. But when barely one in three Canadians believes "religion provides the common values and ethical foundations that diverse societies need to thrive in the 21st century," activities that are strictly sectarian or evangelical in nature should not receive government subsidies. Why should Canada provide financial support to many groups that actively work against the principles of equality and justice spelled out in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms?

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