A story came out today about how the United Church has voted to boycott goods produced in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. I believe that the church has also been discussing a more significant move to denounce the Israeli occupation. I’m all for this move, boycotts are an excellent way to punish countries who have illegally occupied other’s lands. That said, if the church doesn’t want to be hypocritical, they should also boycott products from Canada, the US, UK and other countries involved in the occupation of Iraq & Afghanistan.
I’ve been thinking about this issue ever since I heard the church was considering this move. Then it dawned on my today- are religious organizations being used as loopholes to enable tax-exempt political activities? In the case of many religious organizations, particularly on the issue of Israel (for or against) it seems to me that they are crossing the line…
According to the CRA, tax-exempt organizations should commit 90% or more of their resources to charitable activities. There’s a precedent for the CRA to remove a church’s tax-exempt status, they did this in 2010 with the Calgary based Kings Glory Fellowship (KGF) church. The explanation for their losing their status was that their directors espoused strong negative views about sensitive and controversial political issues- including homosexuality, abortion and divorce.
The United Church’s standing on the state of Israel is at least as controversial as KGF’s is on the issues that they support- members of most Canadian Synagogues will be highly disturbed by the church’s position. Equally, members of many churches and mosques are unhappy about how Canadian synagogues are supporting the state of Israel. And, it’s no secret that Stephen Harper’s support of Israel is related to gaining political support of many Christians & Jews.
The United Church is well known for it’s support of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgendered (GLBT) people and a woman’s right to choose an abortion (both of which I support). But, if the KGF has lost it’s tax status because it took an opposite view- how can this possibly be seen as being fair? Equally, people in many mosques & synagogues have opposing views, and they haven’t lost their tax exempt status. It seems to me that Canada has lost its way on religious tax exemptions.
The people at the United Church have also recently made a public statement against the Northern Gateway pipeline- an issue that has zero religious implications. Recently, and probably not a coincidence, members of the United Church’s clergy joined the Canadian Auto Workers Union….
But, ultimately, when religious organizations take-on political issues, and preach to their audiences that they support these positions they are stepping the boundaries from being religions to becoming lobbyist groups. This issue has been challenged recently by the Victoria Secular Humanist Association who have complained that, if they don’t get tax exemptions, religious organizations shouldn’t either.
In the 2001 census, 16.1% of Canadians were atheists, agnostics or humanists- this number is up from 12.3% in 1991. A poll in 2008 showed that 23% of Canadians don’t believe there is a God. And, as many churches are regularly closing their doors, it is obvious that this number is growing quickly. Why should almost 1/4 of the population subsidize religions with tax free status when they aren’t believers?
It seems to me that the tipping point on a religion’s tax-exempt status should be a more rigid on each religion’s political activities. Yesterday’s announcement by the United Church should become the basis for a national conversation on religious tax exemptions. If small churches like the KGF can lose their exempt status for their political beliefs and activities- this should apply to the larger institutions too.
My next story on this subject will discuss tax exemptions for political activities at Unions…