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Court confirms that religious charities must actively promote a religion

By Natasha Smith

Earlier this month, the Federal Court of Appeal was asked to consider whether the Minister of National Revenue (the “Minister”) had erred in confirming the decision of the Canada Revenue Agency (“CRA”) to deny the Humanics Institute’s application for charitable status. CRA denied the application on the basis that: 1) The Humanics Institute’s purposes were too broad; 2) the activities stated in support of its purposes were not charitable; and 3) it did not demonstrate that it would have direction and control over certain of its resources, as its proposed funding of a foreign scholarship could not be considered to be the organization’s “own activities” or the funding of a qualified donee.

According to its website, the Humanics Institute is:

…focused on promoting principals of non-violence, human development, justice and peace in the world, through programs or ventures aimed at understanding and [appreciating]: the Oneness of Reality, Respect and Dignity of all Human Beings, and the Intrinsic Relationship between Human Beings and the Cosmic and Natural Environment in the World around us.”

Based on the above, the organization’s mission is not to advance a particular world religion, but rather to encourage the acceptance of many religions in recognition of a unifying religious value called the Oneness of Reality. To promote this concept, the Humanics Institute cited its proposed development and management of a sanctuary and sculpture park designed to embody the organization’s vision.

The primary consideration before the Federal Court of Appeal was whether the particular belief system constituted a “religion” for the purpose of charitable registration. CRA generally requires a belief system to have three attributes in order to constitute a religion for this purpose:

(a) faith in a “higher unseen power” such as God, a supreme being or entity;

(b) worship/reverence of the supreme being or higher power; and

(c) a particular and comprehensive system of doctrines and observances.

The Federal Court of Appeal confirmed the Minister’s finding that the concept of Oneness of Reality was too broad to be a “comprehensive system of faith and worship”. Furthermore, and of particular importance, the Court confirmed the proposition in Fuaran Foundation v. Canada (Customs and Revenue Agency) that a charity whose purpose is to advance religion must demonstrate a “targeted attempt” to promote it. Specifically, the provision of a space whereby individuals may pursue religious thought, such as the proposed sanctuary and sculpture park, is not an activity which will be considered to advance a particular religion in the charitable sense.

Having found that the belief system described by the Humanics Institute was not a religion for the purpose of charitable registration, the Court went on to reject the various Charter arguments advanced by the organization. Specifically, the Minister was not (and based on the previous finding could not) be held to have interfered with the organization’s section 2(a) right to freedom of religion. The organization, according to the Court, had also failed to provide any supporting argument for its section 2(b) claim for a breach of freedom of expression. Finally, the Court also held that the Humanics Institute, as a corporation, could not bring its section 15 claim as this provision of the Charter (which addresses discrimination) only applies to individuals.

This case is interesting, in part, because it re-affirms the previous ruling in Fuaran Foundation’s regarding the requirement of a targeted attempt to advance religion. Activities intended to promote religion that are too “passive” in nature may be challenged by CRA. The case also affirmed an understanding of religion that requires a comprehensive system of beliefs – a test which may be difficult to meet for many non-traditional religions or religious schools of thought.

Reproduced with permission from Miller Thomson LLP

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