By Alex Hutchinson
Sunday June 10, 2005
"If you are at the public trough, if you are collecting taxpayers' money, you should be following taxpayers' laws. And that means adhering to the Charter," says Kevin Bourassa, who in 2001 married Joe Varnell in one of Canada's first gay weddings, and is behind www.equalmarriage.ca.
"We have no problem with the Catholic Church or any other faith group promoting bigotry," he said. "We have a problem with the Canadian government funding that bigotry."
Several Liberal backbenchers have been pressuring Prime Minister Paul Martin to amend the controversial gay-marriage bill, which is now before the House, to protect the tax status of churches that refuse to perform such marriages.
Under current rules, donations to religious groups are tax-privileged as long as the church refrains from partisan political activity.
"They can't connect their views with any political candidate," said Peter Broder, the director of regulatory affairs at Imagine Canada, an umbrella organization for charities and non-profit groups.
But the role of the Catholic Church in public debate is legitimate and legal, according to Bede Hubbard, the associate secretary general of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"Right from the very beginning, the representatives of the government have called on Canadians to express their opinions," he said. "And certainly, Canadian churches are among Canadian citizens."
Even if the churches are in compliance with tax laws --with or without an amendment to the marriage bill -- they could still be subject to a challenge under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But this is unlikely to succeed, Mr. Broder said.
"It's hard to see how that would happen," he said. "For example, I'm not aware of any religious group having been challenged on their refusal to marry divorced people."
Churches rely heavily on their charitable status to encourage more frequent and more generous donations, according to Janet Epp Buckingham, the director of law and public policy for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.
"The loss the charitable tax status would really affect the ability of these ministries to carry out their functions," she said. "That includes a lot of things that are beneficial to society, like homeless ministries, outreach to the poor, and international development."
As a result, the Evangelical Fellowship favours an amendment to the bill guaranteeing that charitable status will not be challenged-- even though the group opposes the bill as a whole.
"If they're going to redefine marriage anyway, we would like to see these kinds of amendments in the bill," Ms. Buckingham said.
Bonnie Greene, a retired United Church official who specialized in tax issues, said the charitable status of churches is not under any immediate threat.
However, the regulations governing charities are greatly in need of updating, she said.
"In Canadian law, the definition of charitable activity is over 400 years old, based on a legal case in England," Ms. Greene said. "This is not good for democracy in Canada."
For Mr. Bourassa and Mr. Varnell, who run the website www.equalmarriage.ca, the distinction between advocacy and partisan politics is artificial.
"Our website is completely self-funded," Mr. Bourassa said.
"We are not a charity, because fighting for our Charter of Rights is considered by the government to be advocacy. What is the difference between fighting for equality and fighting against equality? There's none."
Currently, groups promoting human rights, the environment and peace are not considered charities. The rules should be changed to reflect the needs of civil society -- needs that were not present 400 years ago, Ms. Greene said.
Any new rules will need to keep faith and politics separate to satisfy Mr. Bourassa, who is a member of Metropolitan Community Church in Toronto.
"During the last election, my church removed all linkages to political non-charitable groups that were fighting for same-sex marriage from their website because of the political implications and the tax implications," Mr. Bourassa said.
And he intends to make other churches follow the same path.
"There are charitable activities that are legitimate within faith communities," he said.
"Political activities are not charitable activities."