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Government treatment of religious charities

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The Canada Revenue Agency and religious charities:

Both for-profit and non-profit organizations, can register with their federal or provincial/territorial government. Those who sell goods register with the federal government for a business number and General Sales Tax (GST) number. They also register with their provincial or territorial government to handle the Retail Sales Tax (RST) on their sales within their province or territory.

Some non-profit groups can also apply to receive charitable status from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA; formerly Revenue Canada), after having been registered for two years. Charities are exempt from the need to pay income tax, although their employees must still pay tax as individuals. They can issue official receipts for income tax purposes so that Canadian donors can reduce their own income tax.

There are over 80,000 charities in Canada of many types. To become a registered charity, a non-profit organization must meet additional requirements. They must perform a function that is beneficial to the public. All of its purposes must fall into one or more of four pigeon-holes: relief of poverty, advancement of education, advancement of religion, or "other purposes that benefit the community in a way that the law says is charitable." 1

Charitable status is impossible to obtain in Canada by the group that sponsors this website -- the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. We could only qualify if we taught belief in a single specific faith or religion. That would be an impossible requirement to meet, since we describe and promote tolerance for the full range of faith groups.

The website of the CRA states:

"It is a charitable purpose for an organization to teach the religious tenets, doctrines, practices, or culture associated with a specific faith or religion. The religious beliefs or practices must not be subversive or immoral."

"Teaching ethics or morals is not enough to qualify as a charity in the advancement-of-religion category. For example, a Web site that states the opinions of an individual or group about what they think is right or wrong does not qualify as advancement of religion. There has to be a spiritual element to the teachings, and the religious activities have to serve the public good." 2

This regulation places the Government of Canada in the awkward position of determining which beliefs and practices are immoral, and which are to be considered spiritual. Teaching hatred of homosexuals and/or homosexuality, or that same-sex couples should be denied the right to marry, or unequal rights for males and females is apparently not immoral, because there are many denominations that teach these beliefs and we have never heard of a church's charitable status being terminated on grounds of homophobia or sexism.

Surprisingly, the Government appears to have violated its own rules concerning eligibility. Charitable religious groups have to teach belief in the existence of one or more deities. Any number would do, of any gender; a single God, a single Goddess, combinations of Gods and Goddesses, etc. Yet the CRA regularly recognized Buddhist groups as charities, even though most Buddhist traditions do not recognize a deity. They also recognized Unitarian fellowships and churches, although membership in those groups does not require belief in a deity. In fact, most Canadian Unitarians would probably define themselves as Humanists.

Presumably the Government registered these non-conforming groups because they are perceived by the public as religions, and because they have a long history in Canada.

References used:

  1. "Charitable Work and Ethnocultural Groups - Information on registering as a charity," Canada Revenue Agency, at:
  2. Ibid, "(iii) The advancement of religion," at"

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Copyright 2008 & 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2008-FEB-25
Last update: 2009-FEB-24
Author: B.A. Robinson

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