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As a concept, charity has its roots in 17th-century English law. But the more appropriate modern definition might be: whatever the Canada Revenue Agency and its political masters say it is.

An Ottawa-based charity recently filed suit to stop the CRA from stripping its tax-exempt status, on the ground it has been too politically active. Lawyers for Canada Without Poverty argue their client's constitutional right to free expression is being violated unreasonably. They're not wrong.

The case is a vestige of the former Conservative government's 2012 decision to pour millions into targeted CRA audits of charity groups – something many in the charitable sector denounced as a witch hunt. The Liberals halted all new audits this past January, but allowed 24 probes to continue.

If the decision seems dubious in terms of fairness, well, so does the law.

Our government provides some level of preferential tax treatment to all kinds of politically active organizations, not least political parties themselves. Labour unions, which are nominally about negotiating contracts, are not shy about using their freedom of speech to influence the partisan sphere.

Register as a charity, however, and there is a dense web of rules governing what you can and can't do. For example, a charity can commission research recommending a legislative change, take out an ad, stage a march on Parliament Hill and hand out placards.

But it must also strictly limit how much it "explicitly communicates to the public that a law, policy or decision of any level of government inside or outside Canada should be retained, opposed, or changed." Some political activism is allowed, just not too much. The line is mostly a matter of bureaucratic discretion.

Traditionally, charitable status has boiled down to a question of purpose – helping strangers, say, or contributing to the betterment of society – which was fine in Elizabethan times, before private corporations and non-profit agencies existed.

Charities shouldn't become vehicles for electing or defeating governments; that's not their role. But they are no longer a unique creature, entirely separate from other non-profit social institutions that can speak their minds. Ottawa should drop the audits and modernize its outdated laws. Free speech should apply to all.

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