The Liberals have recently released their Liberal Party Platform-Forward-For-Everyone.  The Liberals and Conservatives have always played a culture war game at the expense of the charity sector.  Whether it’s political activities of environmental charities, abortion, etc.

 

The cost of this culture war has been a huge decline in public trust in charities.  One of the biggest issues facing Canada today is vaccinations and trying to minimize the impact of COVID-19.  When people listen to misinformation on Facebook over proper healthcare advice from registered charities we see the impact of a diminished charity sector, partly hurt by the potshots of the political parties.      Why should this election be different?  Well, the Liberals have continued the culture war and thrown a hand grenade in their policy platform by making an ambiguous proposal relating to anti-abortion groups and their charitable status.

 

On page 4 of the Liberal Platform it says:

A re-elected Liberal government will:

• Establish regulations under the Canada Health Act governing accessibility for sexual and reproductive health services so there is no question, that no matter where someone lives, that they have access to publicly available sexual and reproductive health services. Failure on the part of a province to meet this standard would result in an automatic penalty applied against federal health transfers.
• Provide up to $10 million to Health Canada to develop an easily accessible portal that provides accurate, judgement-free, and evidence-based information on sexual and reproductive health and rights, which will include a section that counters misinformation about abortion.
• Provide up to $10 million over 3 years to youth-led grassroots organizations that respond to the unique sexual and reproductive health needs of young people.
• No longer provide charity status to anti-abortion organizations (for example, Crisis Pregnancy Centres) that provide dishonest counseling to women about their rights and about the options available to them at all stages of the pregnancy. [my emphasis]

 

It is not clear what this means:

  1. What is an anti-abortion group?  Is it a place of worship that opposes abortion? Is it a group that focuses most of its resources on pregnancy-related issues?
  2. Will this just be for new applications or is this going to affect existing groups that have registered charity status?
  3. What will be considered to be “dishonest counseling”? What evidence will CRA need to make that determination?

 

Depending on how the above questions are answered, it could result in a few charities losing their status/not receiving the status or it can result in many thousands of charities losing their charitable status.

 

This issue is part of a broader issue that I have discussed before of “modernizing charity law“.  I always find it interesting when groups advocating for modernization don’t know that modernization might have a very different meaning than they think it does.  For many Canadians, places of worship such as churches, mosques, temples and synagogues or other primarily religious missionary groups would not be entitled to charitable status under a modern definition.  Groups that are religious and focussed on poverty or homelessness etc. may be able to be registered charities.  Perhaps there would be a new definition so that “registered charities” continue but special donation status only applies to a narrower group as we have seen in Australia and other countries.  Also removing fundamental pillars of charity law such as restrictions on political activities, or now an attempt to remove “direction and control”, will ultimately further strain policymakers’ willingness to subsidize the charity sector.  They will need to either make the incentives for registered charities less or have the incentives apply to a smaller number of groups.

 

I have traditionally taken the view that religious groups do a lot of good in our society.  Even if one thinks that the bad done in the name of religion outways the good, there is still something to be said for maintaining the status quo and avoiding a culture war when trying to take away the status of so many religious registered charities.

 

In the last few months, my views have evolved, with the completely ridiculous position of the Roman Catholic Church in Canada as it relates to residential schools.  There are around 32,000 places of worship and about over 3700 of them are Catholic.  This is not a small number of organizations.  The tax benefits received by these organizations are very significant and the public has a reasonable expectation of these groups have a public benefit.   I hope that Catholics, and all other religious groups, really spend some time talking to the Catholic church – because unfortunately, their conduct dealing with residential schools including lack of compensation and apology and perhaps spending too much time focusing on legal advice is dragging all religious charities through the mud.   Today I would say I will not be surprised if places of workshop do not have charitable status in a few years.   If this happens I think that many religious people will understand why this is happening.

 

Another problem that needs to be dealt with – or may this is just my perception – is that we need to have a better understanding of the place of religious charities in the charity sector.  CRA finalized many years ago an extensive guidance on religious charities and the Minister of National Revenue has prevented it from being circulated by CRA.  This is both contrary to the rule of law and also really leaves religious charities in the lurch in understanding their obligations and whether they have a future in the charity sector.

 

Even worse than CRA not publishing that guidance, many religious registered charities make unsubstantiated allegations of being persecuted in Canada by the CRA.  Whether it is Christian, Jews or Muslim, etc. one has to be careful.  There is no doubt in my mind that there is bigotry, hatred, Anti-semitism, Islamaphobia etc. in this country and that it is a big problem.   However, if every time a religious charity that is penalized or revoked for extensive non-compliance with the rules for registered charities responds that the revocation is based on persecution, then it shows that some religious charities and certain elements of certain communities are not interested in complying with the requirements of the ITA (only receiving the numerous advantages of being a charity) and it increases the public’s questioning of why places of worship are even considered to be registered charities in 2021.

 

It is very important that religious charities are aware of the problems within their own communities and advocate for improvements in the behaviour of their own charities.  In some cases that could mean that certain groups that are behaving inappropriately lose their charitable status.

 

While the Liberal government may have politicized the very popular Canada Summer Jobs program to exclude certain groups that are not prepared to commit to a pro-choice position, in total, religious charities receive significant subsidies.  In my experience, religious charities applying for registered charity status are accepted by CRA probably the easiest of any operating charity.  Their leaders receive benefits such as the clergy residence deduction that leaders of non-religious charities are not entitled to.    They receive property tax exemptions.   They have assets, especially real estate, that puts them in a very privileged position and they pay no taxes as those assets increase significantly in value.  So every time a person says that religious charities are persecuted by the government in Canada it makes others want to look and see what is going on and reminds them that perhaps the system needs to change but perhaps not in the way that some religious people are expecting.

 

There are many non-profit organizations that do great work in Canada and that have a tremendous public benefit and they are not entitled to or don’t have registered charity status.  Groups don’t have a right to registered charity status – it is supposed to be earned by each group fitting within a definition and having a public benefit.

 

We will see if the Liberals are reelected and whether this proposal moves forward.   We need to have a more principled and practical discussion of religious charities and the work they do, not sudden ambiguous proposals in the middle of an election that will just exacerbate divisions in our society.