Opinions
Matt McGuigan/the Gauntlet

Stop giving tax breaks to religious groups

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There is a difference between freedom of speech and freedom from taxation. This difference makes it possible to retain the former without being able to claim the latter, but not everyone sees it this way. In October the King's Glory Fellowship Association, a protestant church, was alerted that they would be losing their charitable status from the Canada Revenue Agency. The CRA has guidelines about the amount of partisan political activity a charitable group can take part in and it found King's Glory in violation of them.

King's Glory pastor Artur Pawlowski sees it differently. Pawlowski views the revocation as a violation of the group's freedom of religion and expression. In a number of other incidents -- including one available on YouTube -- Pawlowski has been arrested and fined for disturbing the peace. The street church that Pawlowski leads holds services in public places (with the city's permission) and by their own estimate supplies food for 150,000 people a year.

The CRA details acceptable activities for charity groups on its website. A charity can't be created for a political purpose and it can't be involved in partisan political activities. The types of activities the CPA feels are political are also mentioned: encouraging the public to contact elected representatives, promoting an agenda to change (or retain) a law and attempts to influence public opinion are all included. This is a rather tenuous list, as it leaves a substantial amount of room for interpretation. The CRA does allow 10 per cent of a charity's efforts to be political, providing a bit of room for groups to pursue a political agenda.

Pawlowski is trying to connect his encounters with the law to show that he is being unfairly picked on. The cases, however, are largely disparate. In the YouTube video which shows him being arrested, there are a few shots of people reading from the Bible, but no one is seen handing out food. The arrest was made for violating the peace, not for being political, and the case was eventually thrown out in court. So his rights to expression and assembly were enforced.

There is, however, no right to get out of paying taxes because of a particular world view one holds. If people had such rights, the "homosexuals . . . marijuana activists . . . and neo-Nazis" that Pawlowski refers to in a press release would be getting tax breaks simply because of their involvement in those groups. That isn't what is happening here. Bishop Fred Henry jumped into the fray by claiming that "religion has the right to influence public affairs." Both men are conflating the negative right to religious freedom with the positive right (meaning others have an obligation to fulfill it) to be financially supported for that religion.

Last week I cited Christopher Hitchens' argument that no good deed exists which only a religious believer can perform. The CRA distinguishes charities from other non-profit organizations; the former can issue tax deduction receipts while the latter may not. This means that charities have the ability to raise more money, because donors have a tax incentive to give to a charity over a non-profit. It also means the CRA has the duty to ensure that charities are fulfilling their purpose of helping the common good.

Food helps people. So does clothing. But standing on a street corner and reading from the Bible (no matter the volume) does not constitute charity. Of course, if you build a roof over that street corner, install a P.A. system and put a cross on the lawn, you still haven't met the qualifications for charity. Because money spent on Bibles and "Jesus is Lord" flags is difficult to sort out from money spent on food and clothing, there is good reason to be suspicious of groups like Pawlowski's. When someone like Fred Henry calls something "the height of hypocrisy" the best response is confidence that we're doing the right thing.

Pawlowski's group deserves to lose its charity status, for the sole reason that the money we're losing by giving them tax breaks could be better spent on actually helping the needy, instead of trying to save their damned souls.

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Comments

I will respond to your questions and concerns.
http://streetchurch.ca/index.php/20100201548/News/Journals/I-will-respond-to-your-questions-and-concerns.html

Your headline and content seems contradictory. Should all religious groups lose their tax-exempt status because of the actions of one church?