By Leslie Rosenblood

All Canadian charities must declare their primary purpose when they register with the Canada Revenue Agency; approximately 40 percent of Canadian charities exist for the “advancement of religion.”

The Church of Atheism of Central Canada applied for charitable status under the “advancement of religion” category. Its request was denied by the CRA, and  this decision was upheld  by the Canadian Federal Court of Appeal. It is possible this will go to the Supreme Court, but that remains to be seen.

The  core of the decision  is: “Fundamental characteristics of religion include that the followers have a faith in a higher power such as God, entity, or Supreme Being; that followers worship this higher power; and that the religion consists of a particular and comprehensive system of faith and worship.” The Church of Atheism of Central Canada lacks belief in a deity, and therefore cannot revere a Supreme Being, and does not have a system of worship, according to the Court. (That Buddhism is eligible for charitable status while also lacking belief in a God failed to persuade the Court that the Church of Atheism should also be considered a religion for charitable purposes.)

The Court also stated that charitable registration is a privilege, not a right, so no Charter considerations come into play.

Mark Blumberg, a lawyer specializing in charity law,  writes , “Ultimately the courts are not planning on changing the status quo ‘ In the absence of legislative reform.’” This is likely a correct prediction. In my opinion, removing “Advancement of Religion” as a criterion sufficient to gain charitable status is preferable to including atheism within the definition of religious belief and practice.

This article appears in the January 2020 version of Critical Links.