Guest Post: “Awareness”

Last week Will Mirewood sent this message using the contact form on Canadian Atheist. Mirewood’s message with its call to action in the first paragraph is reprinted below with Mirewood’s permission:

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.

What’s 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, and some communities have actively pressed religious organizations to justify their benefit to the general public, 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, 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 (change.org), 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.

What actions are you planning that relate to this issue?

13 thoughts on “Guest Post: “Awareness”

  1. Vancouver has one of the most expensive real estate markets in canada, how can they justify extrapolating anything about Canada from that?

    • Hey Joe,

      This argument isn’t using the “$160 million tax dollars” as its foundation. The author freely admits that this has been relatively poorly studied in Canada, and says that the this blogger merely “claims” this is the case. The $160 million isn’t hoisted up as a matter of fact.

      With all this being said, you’re missing the main point of the article, but focusing on a single source that isn’t given a ton of merit, and is a rather minor part of this post.

      • “poorly studied in Canada”
        I would have left it at that then.

        I’m a skeptic. Including such an obviously inflated statistic at all… is a huge red flag for me. It makes me question the author’s judgement and reliability. My rhetorical bullshit detector may be more sensitive than other people’s, but I don’t consider that a bad thing.

        • Including information to back up an argument isn’t showing a “lack of judgment” nor does providing the sources.. thats actually demonstrating transparency. If the author had cherry picked the information and left out the source then your insults in the guise of criticisms would be valid.

          Right now you’re just being a dick and continuing to distract from the issue that is being discussed by over inflating this one source.

          On second thought, perhaps you do have a point regarding the “author’s Judgement and reliability” since you seem to be poster boy for the lack of these qualities.

        • Surely we can use back-of-the-envelope calculations like that one to at least come up with a guesstimate. We don’t need everything to be studied in rigorous detail before we can begin having a serious discussion about it. If it’s a ridiculous estimate, then it’s on either supporters of tax-exempt status for churches or people who want to promise concrete numbers to provide a better one. But in the absence of good data, saying “one rough estimate is ___”, while showing the reasoning behind the estimate, is plenty good enough. It’s not like the writer of that piece is actually *promising* a gain of $160m; ze makes it pretty clear ze’s just giving a rough order-of-magnitude estimate to base discussion on.

          (Besides, I don’t think using the Greater Vancouver Area is really a fallacy, though I can’t say for sure because the author of that piece doesn’t provide the important part of the calculation where ze generalizes to all of Canada. I mean, while it’s true Vancouver property *prices* are high, they also pay the lowest *taxes* on their property. But in theory, if you took any large enough area – that includes a roughly representative demographic spread – and calculated the amount of lost tax dollars as a percentage of the actual tax dollars, the relative cost of housing and tax rates drop out of the equation, and you could generalize it for all of Canada, roughly.)

          An overly sensitive rhetorical bullshit detector *is* a bad thing if it’s giving you so many false positives that it prevents you from engaging in reasoned discussion about real issues.

        • Bad jebus Joe! The reason the author can’t provide actual numbers is because the christian religion is put on a pedestal and is not required to provide reporting of assets, property, expenses, and income. Every other charity must report, christians are authorized to scam!

          • Yes, I think every charity, religious or otherwise, should be transparent with regards to their books etc… I think it is entirely reasonable to ask for that. I don’t think pulling numbers out of our asses is helpful though. Inflammatory rhetoric and confirmation bias are a potent mix. We should not promote that sort of thing, imo.

  2. > We also know that the government requires registered charities to act within the legal framework and not be contrary to public policy, and yet, some religious institutions actively work against public policy.

    I actually wanted to add to this point by saying that, while it’s true, it’s a *LOT* worse than you think.

    Since taking absolute power in 2011, our current government has tinkered with the rules for charities in ways that can only be described as nefarious. The upshot is that pretty much every major charity that advocates for the environment – and *particularly* those who oppose tar sands development – has been mired in expensive legal battles for years now. Things are so bad for non-religious charities right now, that even Oxfam Canada was denied charitable status, because the government said “preventing poverty” is not a legitimate charitable goal. (They did eventually get charitable status, but by removing that goal from their list of aims, because they couldn’t afford to fight over it.)

    Yet advancing religion *is* a legitimate charitable goal, apparently, and isn’t even questioned.

    • Previous governments have attempted to target organizations deemed to be hostile to their agenda, with at least one anti-abortion organization losing their charitable tax status in 1995 due to being deemed not to be educational. Previous governments maintained or increased the religious subsidies (the advancement of religion charitable tax category existed prior to 2006, for example).

      • Previous governments have attempted to target organizations deemed to be hostile to their agenda, with at least one anti-abortion organization losing their charitable tax status in 1995 due to being deemed not to be educational.

        I would hardly consider that an example of “targeting an organization hostile to the government agenda”. An anti-abortion organization is not an educational organization. Claiming they were was fraud. They’re lucky if the only penalty they faced was a loss of charitable status.

        • It is not fraud unless the state defines it as fraud. They argued that they were educating the public regarding abortion.

          • Bullshit. Fraud does not need a state definition. Even in a world with no government at all, if one person promises another something and accepts “payment” of some kind for something ze never intends to deliver, that’s fraud. No government necessary.

            If they were truly educating the public about abortion, that might be acceptable, but if they were an anti-abortion group, they almost certainly weren’t. What they were almost certainly doing was promising education and instead delivering ideologically-selective facts couched in falsehoods and emotionally-manipulative presentation designed not to inform but to change beliefs. This is a very common strategy of anti-abortion groups.

            Education is about informing, and leaving it up to the listener to form opinions. It is not about giving them conclusions, it is about giving them tools to make their own conclusions. You may *want* them to come to a certain opinion, but education does not push them toward it, it merely shows them a path toward it that they can choose to follow or not, and the education is successful either way. Consciously intending to affect the listener’s opinions (and in a specifically chosen way) is not education, it is advertising.

            It doesn’t matter that they “argued” they were educating. It’s only natural that someone caught doing something underhanded would “argue” that that’s not what they were doing. The fact is they weren’t educating, and never intended to – they were merely pretending to; a common tactic of anti-abortion activism.

  3. “One for you. Two for me. One for you. Three for me.” We all know how it goes.”

    One of the aggravating situations in my life occurred on University campus. Study space was at a premium but there existed at least two, mostly empty, church buildings.

    What a waste of space! (for someone in a panic to finish writing up an experiment)

    Education in Huston Texas is very expensive and, coincidentally, there are around a dozen mega churches in the vicinity. A mega church seats up to 5000 worshipers.

    Atheist organizations will eventually lead our countrymen to a better place.

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