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Bishops address charitable tax status concerns with CRA

By Deborah Gyapong

Canadian Catholic News

01/18/2017

OTTAWA (CCN)—Canada’s Catholic bishops have raised concerns with Canada’s revenue minister in December on how the government classifies some religious charitable activities as political.

“. . . there is always a special need to address the current and often profound misunderstandings about religion in present-day Canadian society, and which in turn seem to be reflected in various efforts to impose categories and definitions that many religious charities find inadequate and even unfair,” president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops Bishop Douglas Crosby of Hamilton wrote in a five-page Dec. 22, 2016, letter to Minister of National Revenue Dian Lebouthillier.

Crosby said the CCCB welcomed the government’s consultation last fall aimed at clarifying the rules governing political activity by charities, but noted the time period was still too short for the thousands of religious charities involved.

“We would note that the amount of time provided was insufficient for our own needs,” Crosby wrote. “We would suspect this is also the case for a number of other religious charities, at least those with which we are acquainted and with which we collaborate — not only other Catholic organizations and Christian groups, but also involving other religious traditions.”

While “advancement of religion” is one of the criteria for charitable activity, along with “the relief of poverty,” “the advancement of education,” and “certain other purposes that benefit the community in a way the courts have said is charitable,” the Canada Revenue Agency’s (CRA) categories and definitions leave religious organizations at times finding themselves “misunderstood, restricted and even unrecognizable,” the CCCB president wrote.

“Be it through a parish, a religious congregation, a synagogue, a mosque, or a temple, the activities of various religious traditions encompass worship and prayer; spiritual, moral and social teaching; and community engagement and service, including both personal involvement and interaction with others, together with efforts to improve and transform society,” he wrote, stressing the all-encompassing nature of religion.

“The Catholic Bishops of Canada would respectfully disagree with instances in the past when the CRA ruled that activities involving social engagement, ethical education, peace building and social solidarity or the promotion of the common good and respect for human life do not ‘advance religion’ and so do not meet the CRA definition of ‘religious activities.’ ”

Crosby said he and his brother bishops agree registered charities should not be engaged in partisan political activities, but “not all charities agree whether or to what extent there should be limitations or restrictions to their participation in a democratic society.”

Crosby also urged CRA to find language for its policies that ordinary people without legal training can understand.

Many of the bishops’ concerns are also reflected in a Dec. 9 letter to the Director General of CRA’s Charities Directorate, Tony Manconi, from the Canadian Council of Christian Charities.

“Advancement of religion is also recognized as not being limited to the dissemination of religious beliefs but includes related activities, such as addressing social, moral, and ethical issues,” wrote the Council’s legal affairs director Philip A.S. Milley.

Milley said fostering public awareness campaigns is not the same thing as charitable work religious charities do when addressing social, moral and ethical issues. “This permitted activity warrants independent commentary by the CRA which will remove unnecessary ambiguity and not dissuade charities from speaking to relevant issues, as they are permitted by law.”

The Council also urged the CRA to use clear language, and clear presentations of the rules, noting most charities that engage in political activity are aware of them and abide by them.

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