Atheism as advancement of religion? The Federal Court of Appeal weighs in.
On November 29, 2019, the Federal Court of Appeal released its decision in Church of Atheism of Central Canada v Canada (National Revenue). In its decision, the Court considered whether atheism qualifies as ‘advancement of religion’ for the purposes of charitable registration with the Canada Revenue Agency (“CRA”) in a review of an application for charitable registration which was denied by CRA.
The Church of Atheism of Central Canada (the “Church of Atheism”) is a non-profit corporation incorporated under the Canada Not-for-profit Corporations Act. Its central purpose is to “preach Atheism through charitable activities.”
On application to the CRA for registration as a charitable organization, the Church of Atheism was rejected by the Minister of National Revenue. The Church of Atheism appealed the decision to the Federal Court of Appeal, arguing that the denial of registration violated sections 2, 15 and 27 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In a unanimous decision, the Court was asked to consider two questions:
- Did the Minister’s refusal to register the appellant as a charity violate its Charter rights?
- Was the Minister’s decision to deny the appellant registration as a charity reasonable?
The Church of Atheism was applying for registration under the “advancement of religion” head of charity, which opened the question: is atheism a religion?
- No Violation of Charter Rights
The Court found that section 15, which guarantees equality of individuals under the law without discrimination based on religion, of the Charter was not applicable as the Church of Atheism did not qualify as an individual. Section 27 of the Charter requires the Court to interpret the government’s duty of neutrality with a view to promoting and enhancing diversity, but was only relevant as an “aid to interpretation.”
The Court agreed that section 2(a) of the Charter applied and protected the rights of the Church of Atheism’s members to practice their beliefs in Atheism. Further, it found the Minister cannot interfere with the practices of those beliefs.
However, the Court ultimately determined that the Minister’s refusal to register the appellant as a charitable organization did not interfere in a manner that was more than trivial or insubstantial with the appellant’s members’ ability to practise their atheistic beliefs. The appeal based on Charter rights was dismissed.
- Was the Minister’s decision reasonable?
The Court was tasked in the appeal to determine whether the Minister’s decision to reject the Church of Atheism for registration was reasonable. In reviewing the decision, the Court reviewed Canadian common law for what qualifies an organization under “advancement of religion.” An organization must be practicing a religion which has been previously recognized, or have the same fundamental characteristics as those recognized religions.
The fundamental characteristics in Canadian case law for “advancement of religion” are that the:
- Followers have faith in a higher power, such as God, entity or Supreme Being;
- Followers worship this higher power; and
- Religion consists of a particular and comprehensive system of faith and worship.
In the initial application, the Minister found that Atheism did not meet any of the three fundamental characteristics. Atheism’s worship of energy, it was found, did not meet the first element of faith in a higher power, and thus followers could not worship it.
The Court disagreed with the Minister regarding the first two characteristics. Instead, it found that the requirement that the belief system have faith in a higher Supreme Being is not always required, agreeing with the Church of Atheism’s reference to Buddhism, a recognized religion which does not believe in a Supreme Being.
However, the Court found that even if the first two characteristics were met, the Church of Atheism must fail on the third characteristic. In their application, the Church of Atheism argued that the doctrine of mainstream science fulfilled the third element. The Minister disagreed with this argument, finding that mainstream science is neither particularly specific nor precise, and that there was no provided detailed information as to the particular and comprehensive system of faith and worship.
The Court agreed that the Minister’s decision was reasonable and upheld the denial as reasonable.
The Church of Atheism had also argued they should not be a requirement that a religion have an authoritative book similar to the Bible under characteristic 3, but the Court was not required to consider the argument having already determined the decision to be reasonable.
The Court reiterated recent case law stating that “registration is a privilege not a right” and thus it is not a right protected by the Charter to be registered. Further, they determined the Minister’s decision was reasonable in rejecting the application.
For now, Atheism is not a recognized religion for registration as “advancement of religion” in Canadian law. However, this case shows that organizations will continue to challenge the traditional heads of charity, and in particular advancement of religion, as secularism in the public sector continues to grow.
The case also highlights the challenge of the current charity law regime in Canada: our definition of “charitable” is defined by the common law. Currently CRA policy and individual cases like this one are the only ways to grow, or clarify, what is legally charitable in Canada. CRA’s summary policy on religion, CSP-R06, is dated October 25, 2002, and although internal documents continue to be updated, CRA has not published an updated guide on advancement of religion for public use.
Another option that has been proposed is legislating the legal definition of charity. In its final report, the Senate Committee on the Charitable Sector made numerous recommendations, including:
- That the Government of Canada, through the Advisory Committee on the Charitable Sector, review the common law meaning of charity to determine whether Canada should follow the approach of other jurisdictions, such as Australia and England, and enact legislation to broaden the legal meaning of charity.
In these two jurisdictions, governments have chosen to specifically define the legal meaning of charity through legislation. The legislation provides an expanded and more comprehensive definition of what is legally charitable. This clarity could prove beneficial in a shifting sector and society. If not, we will continue to advance our understanding of the Canadian legal definition of charitable as cases are brought and considered before the courts.
The full Senate committee report can be accessed here.
A brief overview of the 13 recognized heads of charity in England can be found here.