Religious organisations may register as charities under the Income Tax Act and are then exempt from paying taxes on donations. Donations may also be used as deductions from income taxes by the donor if an official receipt is issued by the charity. However, there are restrictions on the activities which these donations may be used to support. Partisan political activities are forbidden, although some general, non-partisan, political activity is permitted.
Policies governing political activities by charities are outlined in a Canadian Federal Government policy statement (CPS-022). It says:
4. The difference between political purposes and charitable purposes
Under the Act and common law, an organization established for a political purpose cannot be a charity. The courts have determined political purposes to be those that seek to:
...retain, oppose, or change the law, policy, or decision of any level of government in Canada or a foreign country.
6.2 What are political activities?
A charity may take part in political activities if they are non-partisan and connected and subordinate to the charity's purposes. We presume an activity to be political if a charity:
1. explicitly communicates a call to political action (i.e., encourages the public to contact an elected representative or public official and urges them to retain, oppose, or change the law, policy, or decision of any level of government in Canada or a foreign country);
2. explicitly communicates to the public that the law, policy, or decision of any level of government in Canada or a foreign country should be retained (if the retention of the law, policy or decision is being reconsidered by a government), opposed, or changed; or
3. explicitly indicates in its materials (whether internal or external) that the intention of the activity is to incite, or organize to put pressure on, an elected representative or public official to retain, oppose, or change the law, policy, or decision of any level of government in Canada or a foreign country.
Right away let's make it plain that any organisation that is not a registered charity can take whatever action it wants in the political arena, since it gets no special treatment in regards to exemption from paying taxes, and can not issue income tax receipts. Lets also make it plain that anybody can take part in politics, including ministers and church members, as long as they do so as private citizens or a private group of citizens. Like anyone else, they may make contributions to a political pressure group and support its activities and participate in its events. On the other hand, religious charities may not give any money to these groups, since that would involve using tax exempt donations to support political activity.
If people take part in politics as representatives of a religious organisation that is a registered charity they must follow the rules of political activity allowed or not allowed. In other words, a minister or priest when acting in their capacity as a minister or priest, should not engage in partisan politics, since they are always representatives of their respective religions when acting in their spiritual capacity. Threatening a politician with an eternity in hell if he supports legislation the church opposes, might be one such example of applying political pressure while representing a religious organisation. To be explicit, church members are free to take part in political activity as private individuals unconnected to their church. It is only when the church organisation itself or a formal representative of the church acting in that capacity engages in political activity that the tax laws would be violated.
Note that point 1 restricts activities which "encourages the public to contact an elected representative or public official and urges them to retain, oppose, or change the law, policy, or decision of any level of government in Canada". If a Church is a registered charity and the Church organisation or one of its representatives (the minister, for instance) has encouraged members to write a letter to an MP opposing same sex marriage legislation, they have engaged in the kind of political activity forbidden to charities. If they have asked members to attend a rally demonstrating against the changes to the Marriage Act, they have engaged in the kind of political activity forbidden to charities.
Point 2 limits communication, forbidding anything which, "explicitly communicates to the public that the law, policy, or decision of any level of government in Canada...should be retained...opposed, or changed;". If a Church has taken out any advertisements, or distributed to the public any pamphlets which oppose same sex marriage legislation they have engaged in the kind of political activity forbidden to charities. If they have asked members to write a letter to a local politician opposing the designation of a day as "Gay Pride Day", they have engaged in the kind of political activity forbidden to charities.
Point 3 is more general and limits activities when it has been made clear, "that the intention of the activity is to incite, or organize to put pressure on, an elected representative or public official to retain, oppose, or change the law, policy, or decision of any level of government in Canada". If a Church has taken part in any activity designed to oppose same sex marriage legislation they have engaged in the kind of political activity forbidden to charities. If they have asked members to hold up a banner during a Gay Pride march suggesting it should have been banned, they may have engaged in the kind of political activity forbidden to charities.
These legal restrictions on political activity by registered charities include any lobbying of politicians at any level, Federal, Provincial or Municipal, with the intention of persuading them to change the law and restrict the activities of homosexuals and others. It includes any lobbying to persuade them to change any policies about such matters, or to modify any decisions they have already made. This is quite a bit more extensive than most people's understanding of what constitutes political activity, and includes demonstrations, for instance, when the intent is to get politicians to do something about something.
So, what political activity can churches engage in? The answer appears to be within areas that are non-argumentative and clearly to produce a positive benefit to society. Asking politicians for assistance in setting up a food bank, for instance. Getting involved in a political controversy, where different politicians have different viewpoints is clearly not that and must be avoided.
Although there has not been a call for the charitable status of any religious charities to be revoked, at least not yet, there is a potential for that to happen. The subject of same sex marriage is one that evokes strong feelings on both sides of the question, and some Church leaders and members have been very outspoken on the issue. So outspoken, in fact, that they may well have stepped over the line. It is not a question of whether religious groups are entitled to make such comments, but it is a question of whether those religious groups should retain charitable status should they do so.
Church members must differentiate between their loyalty to their religious group, and their obligations to government. Religious people should not require reminding of that difference, nor should they require being told that they cannot have their cake and eat it too. The choice is either political activity or charitable status, and it is both dishonest and dishonourable to expect both.
During the national debate on same sex marriage a few years ago religious organisations and individuals were given leave by the Federal government of the day (Conservative with Stephen Harper as the Prime Minister) to make submissions to the parliamentary committee considering the laws surrounding the issue without being held responsible for engaging in partisan political activity. This was clearly improper. While any person or any organisation, formal or informal, is at liberty to address parliamentary committees by appointment, to give a blanket exemption from the law forbidding registered charities from engaging in partisan political activity is thoroughly inappropriate. If these groups wished to address the issue before the parliamentary committee involved they should have forsworn their charitable status before doing so. They should have put their money where their mouth is, as the vernacular saying has it or, more accurately, our money.
I find it completely unacceptable for a government which has a duty to uphold our laws, including our most fundamental human rights laws, to grant an exception to religious groups from obeying those same human rights laws so they can argue that a human rights issue should be settled by violating some of our citizens’ human rights. Doing this was surely an act of gross hypocrisy.
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