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B.C. Humanists continue to lobby against giving clergy charitable tax breaks

Group says clergy housing deduction an example of ‘religious privilege’
Studies by the BC Humanist Association suggest that religious privilege exists in Canada, since churches are exempt from some taxes. (Pixabay)

The BC Humanist Association and Centre for Inquiry Canada are advocating for more neutrality by the federal government when exempting certain groups, religious or not, from taxes.

The association has conducted research and compiled a series of reports over the years they say show evidence of religious privilege in Canada.

The main reason tax deductions are available to churches is they are categorized as charitable organizations. Three primary categories are recognized as charitable in Canada; the alleviation of poverty, the advancement of education and the advancement of religion.

According to a Humanist report, members of religious clergies in Canada have been able to deduct housing costs from their income since 1949, through what’s called the Clergy Residence Deduction.

That same report suggests deductions for clergy create a tax burden that is subsidized by all Canadian taxpayers, regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof.

Projections by the Ministry of Finance estimate these exemptions will cost the federal treasury $105 million in revenue in 2021, and have cost the government an estimated $1.035 billion since 2011.

“As a humanist organization we wondered – is this a legitimate and necessary priority in a country that is pluralistic, multicultural and upholds those values through the charter?” asked association executive director Ian Bushfield, adding the exemptions are now outdated.

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Leslie Rosenblood, treasurer and secular chair at the Centre for Inquiry Canada, is a proponent of freedom of religion and an equal proponent of freedom from religion, he said. He and other humanists have been pushing for secular governance in Canada, where it is defined by complete neutrality in matters of religion.

“We’re advocating for the removal of advancement of religion, because it is not inherently a charitable act,” Rosenblood said. While many churches partake in service, he said, the charitable acts are separate from the religion itself.

Governments should neither support nor suppress religious expression in Canada, he said, but they directly assist it.

On the other side of the conversation is Brian Dijkema, vice-president of external affairs for Cardus, a research and educational institution. Dijkema and Rosenblood have had respectful, public discourse about their opposing views in the past.

Dijkema said there are a number of unique reasons why churches exist as charitable organizations and a number of reasons why this should be maintained.

“In a liberal and democratic society, we have an understanding that there are competing visions of the good and what makes a good society,” he said. From a philosophical perspective, communities trying to find answers to life’s big questions should be free to do so, he added.

“The Centre for Inquiry said the tax refund is the way in which the state directly supports churches, but I would reframe that and say this is the way governments provide spheres of community and freedom separate from government.”

Teasing out the distinction between what is good and charitable work and what is religion is something Dijkema said is difficult, since the two are often so closely intertwined.

The resolution is not to contract or take away these proponents, but rather, to expand diversity to include all belief systems, theistic or not, equally in terms of whether they qualify to be deemed charitable, Dijkema said.


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