dollar sign with religious symbolsLeslie Rosenblood

[This article was also published as an Op Ed in the Friday August 27 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press]

It may surprise Canadians to learn that many of our laws and regulations were not made in Canada, but were inherited from England and France. What the Canada Revenue Agency considers a charity comes from a decision by the British House of Lords in the late 1800s, itself based on the preamble of the 1601 Statute of Charitable Uses (also known as The Statute of Elizabeth). To be a registered charity in Canada, you can either perform charitable acts (such as alleviating poverty or educating people) or you can “advance religion.” It is long past time for Canadian rules to be made in Canada, and updated on a time scale that is not measured in centuries.

This may seem small potatoes, but the numbers are quite large. Canada treats religious organizations differently, and consistently preferentially, compared with other non-profit institutions. Of Canada’s 86,000 charities, more than a third (32,000) exist to advance religion. Over 90 percent of these are Christian organizations. Religious charities write tax receipts worth over $3.5 billion every year, which has helped them accumulate net assets of over $38 billion.

Nor is this the only way religious organizations are treated differently from other groups. Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other houses of worship sit on some of the best real estate in every city, town, and village across the country. Yet unlike any other group, they do not pay property taxes on their land, starving municipalities of much-needed revenue. This exemption favours religious institutions to the tune of more than $900 million each year.

The largest public subsidy of religion comes from the Ontario government, which continues to fully fund the separate (Catholic) school system through grade 12. This arrangement has been condemned as discriminatory by the United Nations. Ontario spends approximately $10 billion per year on Catholic schools and would save $1.5 billion annually if it followed the examples of Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador, which merged their sectarian school boards into a single publicly funded secular school system.

The list goes on. Religious charities — groups whose primary purpose is not to feed the hungry or increase literacy, but to advance religion — receive over $1 billion every year in direct subsidies from the three levels of government in Canada. And there is a housing tax deduction available only to members of the clergy, which costs the federal government (and benefits houses of worship) more than $100 million annually.

It is true, of course, that some religious groups do good works. It is also evident from reading the headlines over the past several weeks that religious institutions are responsible for horrific acts of inhumanity. Given their mixed record, it is not clear whether religious organizations are good or bad for society overall. Let those that conduct genuine good works continue to enjoy charitable status. Those called to their faith by a strong desire to help others in need will continue to do so. Those organizations that exist to advance religion — that is, to proselytize or fund denominational efforts — are perfectly legitimate entities, but are not charitable and should not reap the benefits of being categorized as such.

Research has shown that societies benefit when religion is neither supported nor suppressed. Just about every socio-economic indicator is positive where governments are neutral in matters of religion: from GDP and life expectancy (high), to poverty and crime rates (low). This is true both across countries and within them.

It is time to remove the property tax exemption for houses of worship. Advancement of religion should no longer be sufficient to gain charitable status. Ontario, Alberta, and Saskatchewan should have a single publicly funded school system for each official language. The clergy residence deduction should be eliminated. Canada should treat all its citizens equally, regardless of their philosophical worldview, but does not do so. These subsidies amount to a massive transfer of wealth from the non-religious to the religious. Government should fund only those groups performing objectively good works, not those with the nebulous aim of advancing religion.

Not only would adopting a neutral stance toward religious organizations provide over $7 billion every year for debt-laden governments (or nearly $200 per Canadian), but it would move Canada closer to the ideal of government steering clear of matters of faith. Nations where religion dictates government policies are theocracies. Countries where the government runs faith-based groups do not have freedom of religion. Let us keep church and state separate, maximize freedom for believers and non-believers alike, and create the conditions for all Canadians to thrive.