What should Canadian atheists ask for in this election?

by | August 20, 2021

Let’s not kid ourselves: no major party has any interest in going out of their way for atheist votes. Even if they were, there are so many other higher stakes issues that we should care more about than our own interests. But… we can still dream, can’t we?

The scenario

Let’s play… imagination!

[Animated image of SpongeBob SquarePants creating a rainbow with his hands, to show the magic of imagination]

Let’s imagine a world where Canadian atheists have enough political clout that we could pressure the various political parties into pandering to us. Let’s put aside the question of whether they would actually follow through on any promises they make. It is enough that they feel it worth their while to make promises that would appeal to atheist voters.

Let’s also imagine that there are no other, more pressing crises that we should prioritize before our own interests. Let’s imagine climate change isn’t a looming disaster that we need to take action on now… or, if you prefer, imagine that all political parties already understand that, and it is a given they will take effective action to combat climate change, so we don’t need to worry about it. Imagine the same for all other immediate crises that will (or should) take priority this election: indigenous issues, the housing crisis, basic income, and so on.

So in this imaginary scenario, atheists can ask for whatever they want, and we won’t be undermining any other, more critical issues by doing so.

Other than that, let’s keep the imaginary scenario as close to our reality as possible.

Things we could ask for

So what kinds of things could we ask for? Well, I’ve asked this question many times—just about every election for over a decade now—so I already have some ready answers. (Though, happily, the list has gotten shorter over the years. For example, there’s no need to ask for repealing the blasphemy law now.)

I’ll offer three suggestions. If I’ve missed one you think is more important, please let me know.

Repeal section 8(1)(c) of the Income Tax Act

The first and often only thing atheists usually say they want from the government is “tax the churches”. Okay, but what does that actually mean?

Well, one possibility is that it means they want section 8(1)(c) of the Income Tax Act repealed. That is the part of the tax code that grants a deduction for clergy residence. Here’s what that section actually says:

8 (1) In computing a taxpayer’s income for a taxation year from an office or employment, there may be deducted such of the following amounts as are wholly applicable to that source or such part of the following amounts as may reasonably be regarded as applicable thereto

(c) where, in the year, the taxpayer

  1. is a member of the clergy or of a religious order or a regular minister of a religious denomination, and

  2. is

    1. in charge of a diocese, parish or congregation,
    2. ministering to a diocese, parish or congregation, or
    3. engaged exclusively in full-time administrative service by appointment of a religious order or religious denomination,

    the amount, not exceeding the taxpayer’s remuneration for the year from the office or employment, equal to

  3. the total of all amounts including amounts in respect of utilities, included in computing the taxpayer’s income for the year under section 6 in respect of the residence or other living accommodation occupied by the taxpayer in the course of, or because of, the taxpayer’s office or employment as such a member or minister so in charge of or ministering to a diocese, parish or congregation, or so engaged in such administrative service, or

  4. rent and utilities paid by the taxpayer for the taxpayer’s principal place of residence (or other principal living accommodation), ordinarily occupied during the year by the taxpayer, or the fair rental value of such a residence (or other living accommodation), including utilities, owned by the taxpayer or the taxpayer’s spouse or common-law partner, not exceeding the lesser of

    1. the greater of

      1. $1,000 multiplied by the number of months (to a maximum of ten) in the year, during which the taxpayer is a person described in subparagraphs (i) and (ii), and
      2. one-third of the taxpayer’s remuneration for the year from the office or employment, and
    2. the amount, if any, by which

      1. the rent paid or the fair rental value of the residence or living accommodation, including utilities exceeds
      2. the total of all amounts each of which is an amount deducted, in connection with the same accommodation or residence, in computing an individual’s income for the year from an office or employment or from a business (other than an amount deducted under this paragraph by the taxpayer), to the extent that the amount can reasonably be considered to relate to the period, or a portion of the period, in respect of which an amount is claimed by the taxpayer under this paragraph;

The detailed accounting stuff is to be expected in the tax code. The part that doesn’t seem appropriate is the very Christian-centric language: “diocese, parish, or congregation”, and “ministering”.

In plain English, what this section of the tax code is about is giving clergy the opportunity to pay less income tax by deducting their rent (actual rent, or a fair estimate) and utilities. This technically isn’t “taxing the churches” (unless they’re actually living in the church, I suppose). But it is an obviously unfair tax break for religious clergy.

Remove “advancement of religion” as a charitable purpose

The Income Tax Act doesn’t actually define what counts as a legitimate charitable purpose in Canada. In fact, no statutory law does. In order to figure out what counts as a legitimate charitable purpose in Canada, the Canada Revenue Agency has to resort to case law.

And the case law they have to resort to is positively ancient. The categories, or “heads”, of charity were described in a case back in 1891. But a 1999 Supreme Court case—Vancouver Society of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women v. M.N.R.—cemented them in modern Canadian law. They are:

  1. relief of poverty
  2. advancement of education
  3. advancement of religion; and
  4. other purposes beneficial to the community.

(The last category is a kind of “catch-all” for everything not included in the other categories, but still obviously valid as a charitable purpose. The common law is full of cases deciding this or that or the other thing is or isn’t “beneficial to the community” for charitable purposes.)

It’s the third head there that is the problem.

It is not clear why the advancement of religion in and of itself is beneficial to the community. It’s certainly beneficial to the members of that religion… but not really to anyone else. And in fact, more often than not, religion’s advancement comes at a cost for many parts of the greater community, particularly those in vulnerable populations.

I want to make it absolutely clear that no one is saying that religions can’t ever be beneficial to the community. Religions very frequently do things that are worthy of charitable status, like running soup kitchens or homeless shelters, doing toy drives on the holidays, and much, much more. When a religious organization does those things, then it obviously deserves charitable status because it does those things. It does not deserve charitable status merely for being a religious organization.

Changing our charity law to remove mere “advancement of religion” as a valid purpose is another way we could “tax the churches”. If a church did nothing that met any of the other charitable heads, it would no longer be tax-exempt. It would have to start paying taxes on its donations (and, reveal the sources of those donations) and any other income it has or properties it owns.

End Parliamentary prayer

The 2015 Supreme Court decision in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City) is the most important decision for secularism in all of Canadian law.

It established that Canada is a secular state, and that the government has a “duty of neutrality” in matters of religion. The specific case was about opening municipal meetings with prayers, and the ruling was clear: No. Not allowed. Not even a vague, wishy-washy, “ecumenical” or “interfaith” prayer.

However… Parliament still opens with a prayer. What gives?

Well, Parliament has something called “Parliamentary privilege” that, very basically, exempts Parliament from the law. The idea is that, as the body that writes the laws, Parliament should be exempt, while performing their duties, from certain legal processes that otherwise apply to everybody. For example—and, this has actually happened—if a Member of Parliament were to say an anti-abortion organization was peddling lies during a debate in the House, the organization cannot sue for slander.

So while opening Parliamentary affairs with a prayer is a blatant violation of the duty of neutrality… it is, indisputably, something that was done while performing Parliamentary duties. Thus, it is protected by Parliamentary privilege.

So we can’t legally force Parliament to stop praying… but we can ask them to change their procedures, to remove the prayer.

As is the case at (almost) all other levels of government, that doesn’t mean Members of Parliament could no longer prayer. They could still pray before a session starts… they would just have to do it in private, in their office or whatever. It wouldn’t be part of the official schedule anymore.

These aren’t the only possibilities!

There are many other ideas I’ve heard over the years for what we could ask for in an election. We could remove God from the anthem, or—though, this would be a stretch—we could amend the Charter to remove God from the preamble.

Don’t reality stop you from, at least, dreaming about what we might ask for, if we could have the major parties pandering for our votes. And of course, our needs may not be acute or pressing, so we should defer to those who really need things from the government much more than we do… but, again… we can still dream.

What do you think atheists should ask for? Have I missed anything interesting?

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