Brian Dijkema is vice-president of external affairs at the think tank Cardus.
The horrific discoveries of unmarked graves at a number of former residential schools across Canada has caused legitimate pain and understandable anger. Any abuse of the children was wrong and awful. It was also deeply hypocritical for the Catholic denominations that largely operated the schools – contrary to the teachings of Christ, and opposed to the dignity of the children, their families and their tribes.
But in response, some have resurrected the idea of “taxing churches.” Put more accurately, some want to channel public disgust about the indignities suffered by Indigenous children at residential schools to revive their long-standing grievance with the property-tax exemptions for houses of worship, and with the federal government’s recognition of the “advancement of religion” as a legitimate charitable purpose.
But this push ignores the fact that religion remains overall a public good.
The most recent Canadian census on the topic found that the majority of Indigenous peoples are members of a Christian denomination. These communities offer hope, renewal and reconciliation in ways that cannot be replicated in other places. They often serve as a critical place where Indigenous languages are valued, used and passed on.
More broadly, Canada’s religious congregations have a broader history of shaping their adherents to be carers in society, instilling values like generosity, volunteerism and concern for the welfare of others.
That’s why the Jewish folks at Ve’ahavta will tell you their work among those affected by homelessness in Toronto flows from the commandment to “love your neighbour as yourself.” That’s why the Ismaili community requires its members to make a “valid and meaningful contribution to the improvement of the quality of life of the societies in which they live.” As my Cardus colleague Andrew Bennett wrote: “The service given by faith-based, charitable initiatives … cannot be separated from the faith that is strengthened in worship.”
It’s not just religious people who acknowledge this reality. A 2018 study by Imagine Canada, which advocates for the charitable sector, found that in 2013, almost half of weekly worship service attenders are in the top 25 per cent of all charitable givers in Canada, and that the median donation by Canada’s very committed religious people to secular charities is almost double that of non-religious people.
And when University of Pennsylvania professors Ram Cnaan and Femida Handy studied 46 Ontario churches, they found non-members were four times more likely to use a church’s (largely volunteer-run) community programs than the church members were.
Cardus has published research on this halo effect. For every dollar in a religious congregation’s budget, the wider community receives a benefit worth an estimated $4.77. That benefit comes in many forms, including soup kitchens, housing programs, substance abuse counselling and refugee resettlement. Add in economic spinoffs, and all that activity is worth an estimated $35-billion per year to Canada.
The exemption of houses of worship from property taxes, then, recognizes that these organizations are unique engines that multiply good in the wider community, beyond those physical walls.
So what to do about the “advancement of religion” as a purpose for which organizations can issue tax receipts? Critics have suggested this amounts to a tax break for funding proselytism. But that’s simply not true.
In fact, a special Senate committee studying the charitable sector in 2019 reaffirmed the “advancement of religion” as a legitimate charitable purpose because it recognized that it was impossible to delineate between belief and its advancement and the work that benefits the public that stems from it. “Religious institutions do more than simply preserve their religious beliefs; they extend themselves in very significant ways,” Sen. Ratna Omidvar said at the time.
When a pastor prays with someone contemplating suicide and gives them new hope, is this religion or good works? When an imam reminds those at the mosque that running a volunteer community cleanup program is integral to their faith, or a Sikh gurdwara feeds truckers carrying goods across Canada during a pandemic – where does faith end, and work begin? And should governments or courts really be trying to figure out which percentage of that publicly beneficial activity should be tax-free?
After all, democratic states recognize they don’t have the competency or jurisdiction over what makes a good life. The state has preferred to stay neutral on such questions while people themselves try to sort through them, free of the obligation to support the state through those activities.
Recent news about residential schools should force us to reckon with injustices. But taxing churches isn’t the place to start. Rather, we should point out that such injustices are at odds with professed beliefs, and remind religious communities to renew their efforts at reconciliation and loving their neighbours.
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