Atheism as a religion? Church of Atheism of Central Canada

Background

In Church of Atheism of Central Canada v Canada (National Revenue) 2019 FCA 296 (CanLII), the Federal Court of Appeal heard an appeal against the refusal of the Minister of National Revenue to register the Church as a charity under the Income Tax Act 1985. The Church is incorporated under the Canada Not-for-profit Corporations Act 2009:

“to preach Atheism through charitable activities, in the City of Ottawa, the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, and whichever province shall from time to time be designated as part of Central Canada by the By-Laws.” [1-2]

The Church argued that that the common law test governing “the advancement of religion” as a head of charity was invalid, as contrary to ss.2, 15, and 27 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms contained in Part 1 of the Constitution Act 1982 [3]. The questions at issue were whether the Minister’s decision to refuse to register the Church as a charity violated its Charter rights and whether that decision had been reasonable [5].

The judgment

Rivoalen JA said that, under the legislation, in order to be charitable an organisation had to be “constituted and operated exclusively for charitable purposes” and devote all its resources to charitable activities [7]; but “charitable activities” were not defined. Whether or not a particular activity was for “the advancement of religion” and/or “certain other purposes beneficial to the community” was to be found in the common law [8], which had established specific requirements for both the “advancement” and the “religion” portions of that head of charity [9].

Following the Supreme Court’s definition in Syndicat Northcrest v Amseleum2004 SCC 47 (CanLII) at [39], Rivoalen JA explained that

“For something to be a ‘religion’ in the charitable sense under the Act, either the Courts must have recognized it as such in the past, or it must have the same fundamental characteristics as those recognized religions. These fundamental characteristics are not set out in a clear ‘test’. A review of the jurisprudence shows that fundamental characteristics of religion include that the followers have a faith in a higher power such as God, entity, or Supreme Being; that followers worship this higher power; and that the religion consists of a particular and comprehensive system of faith and worship.” [10]

The Charter rights issue

The effect of previous rulings was that s.15 ­– under which “(1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination…” did not apply to not-for-profit corporations because they were not “individuals” for its purposes [13]. Further, the argument that a test that required belief in a deity actively discouraged diversity ­– contrary to s.27 of the Charter [14] – failed because s.27 was “not a substantive provision that can be violated and is ‘relevant only as an aid to interpretation’” [15]: Roach v Canada (Minister of State for Multiculturalism and Citizenship) 1994 CanLII 3453 (FCA). While she agreed that s.2(a) of the Charter protected the rights of atheists, in the present case,

”the Minister’s refusal to register the appellant as a charitable organization does not interfere in a manner that is more than trivial or insubstantial with the appellant’s members’ ability to practise their atheistic beliefs. The appellant can continue to carry out its purpose and its activities without charitable registration” [16].

She therefore concluded that the Minister’s refusal to register the Church as a charity had not violated its Charter rights [17].

Whether the Minister’s decision to deny registration had been reasonable

Because the courts had not previously recognised atheism as a religious belief, the Minister had had to look for “three fundamental characteristics common to previously recognized religions fulfilling charitable purposes” [19]. He had found that “the worship of energy” did not meet the first element of “faith in a higher unseen power such as a God, Supreme Being, or entity” and that the second element of reverence for a Supreme Being could not exist without a belief in a Supreme Being [20] – though she agreed with the appellant that the requirement that a belief system include faith in a higher Supreme Being or entity was not always necessary, given that Buddhism was a recognised religion “that does not believe in a Supreme Being or any entity at all” [21]

The Church’s claim failed, however, on the third element: “It did not demonstrate that its belief system is based on a particular and comprehensive system of doctrine and observances” [22]:

“The Minister rejected the appellant’s claim that its doctrine of mainstream science fulfils the third element. Mainstream science is neither particularly specific nor precise. He found that the statement of the appellant that ‘[w]e believe…that our Ten Commandments of Energy are sacred texts because they were created by a wise human being who consists of pure, invisible Energy and has acknowledged Energy’s existence’ provides no detailed information as to the particular and comprehensive system of faith and worship. He found that the appellant’s contention that there should not be a requirement that a religion have an authoritative book similar to the Bible was a further indication that the appellant does not have a comprehensive and particular system of faith and worship” [23]

Given the scope and vagueness of what was asserted, it was reasonable for the Minister to deny the Church registration under the heading of “advancement of religion” [24].

Whether the Church otherwise qualified under the “fourth head” of charity

She rejected the Church’s argument that its activities as a religious self-help group could be charitable under the head of “certain other purposes beneficial to the community” (the Canadian equivalent to Lord MacNaghten’s “fourth head” of charity in Commissioners for Special Purposes of Income Tax v Pemsel [1891] A.C. 531):

“I find that the Minister’s refusal to register the appellant as a religious self-help group is also reasonable. The activities provided by the appellant are for their members only and are not rehabilitative or therapeutic” [25].

Charitable registration was a privilege, not a right [26] and it had been reasonable on the record before him for the Minister to decide that the Church could not be registered as a charity because it lacked a charitable purpose as defined by the common law and did not carry out charitable activities in furtherance of that purpose [27]. Appeal dismissed [29].

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Atheism as a religion? Church of Atheism of Central Canada" in Law & Religion UK, 11 December 2019, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2019/12/11/atheism-as-a-religion-church-of-atheism-of-central-canada/

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