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INTERACTIONS OF CANADIAN GOVERNMENTS WITH RELIGION 

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In Canada, the federal and provincial governments interface with religious groups in many different ways. For example, governments:

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Set rules that must be met for a couple to marry in a secular or religious setting.

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Decide which religious leaders may perform marriages.

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Decide which religious groups can issue income tax certificates to their financial donors.

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Indirectly control prayer in public schools.

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Generally give exemption to municipal taxes to religious institutions, with the exception of certain services like garbage collection.

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Rules restricting marriage:

Marriage consists of both civil and religious components. Most people in Canada are married by clergypersons. In order to obtain government recognition and benefits, they must register their marriages with their provincial government.

Marriage in Quebec is controlled by the Quebec Civil Code, which was historically derived from French laws. Marriage in the remaining provinces of Canada is administered by the provinces, under a Federal law which historically evolved from British law. All of the laws are tightly linked to the traditions of the Christian religion.

To paraphrase a United Church of Canada marriage ceremony, marriage is a state so intimate that it deeply affects all aspects of one's life. It can be argued that the most intrusive action a government could take into a person's life would be to deny them the ability to marry the one individual that they love and to whom they have made a lifetime commitment. 

Marriage has historically been limited to a legal contract and (usually) religious ritual among the state, one woman and one man. Same-sex marriage in Canada was prohibited until a remarkable court decision in 2003-JUN. Faced with a conflict between a law and the constitution of Canada, the judges unanimously opted to uphold the constitution:

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The Federal Marriage Act specifically restricts marriage to one man and one woman. It does not allow gay and lesbian couples to marry.

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Provincial and territorial marriage acts follow the federal act.

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The Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that a person cannot be discriminated against because of their gender. To deny an adult lesbian in a loving committed relationship the right to marry would be to discriminate against her partner on the basis of gender.

Laws regarding heterosexuals are considerably more lenient. For example, an excommunicated Mormon group settled in a rural area of British Columbia where they continued to practice polygyny. When their lifestyle was recently challenged, the Attorney General decided to not prosecute the couples for the crime of bigamy. He felt that the province would probably lose any case based on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Charter guarantees individual religious freedom. The practice of polygyny was an integral part of the early Mormon religion; it remains so today within various excommunicated branches of the church.

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Becoming certified to perform marriages:

The regulations in Ontario are believed to be typical of provinces across Canada. Marriages in the province can only be performed by:

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Members of the clergy who have a certificate of registration from the Office of the Registrar General for the Province of Ontario.

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Judges.

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Justices of the Peace.

Clergypersons set their own fees for performing marriages. Civil marriages by Judges and Justices of the Peace cost $75.00 (as of 2001-MAR). In addition, there is the cost of the license which is $75.00 plus an optional fee by the municipality.

In order for a religious leader (minister, pastor, priest, priestess, rabbi, imam, etc.) to perform marriages in Ontario, she or he must:

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File an application form with the government.

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Include a document proving that they have been ordained or appointed as a clergyperson.

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Include a letter from their faith group authorizing them to solemnize marriages.

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Include a statement that discusses the name and location of their "church," the numbers of its members, the congregation's growth rate, etc. 1

However, the faith group itself must first be be registered by the Office of the Registrar General. That office requires detailed information from any faith group seeking registration. This includes:

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How clergy are appointed and dismissed.

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A copy of the marriage ceremony.

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A copy of the group's form of worship "namely actions or practices of displaying reverence or veneration paid to a being or power regarded as supernatural or divine displayed by appropriate acts, rites and ceremonies."

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A letter stating who in the group will keep track of clergy registrations.

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A copy of the group's incorporation papers.

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A copy of the group's registration as a charity by Canada Customs and Revenue Agency.

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A description of the organizational structure of the group.

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Signatures of at least 25 group members, not including clergy and their families. 1

This Memorandum is obviously based on a fairly rigid, Christian model of what a religious group should be. 

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It refers to a "church," rather than a generic term, like "meeting place.

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It assumes that the group owns or rents a building. That might make it difficult for Aboriginal, Wiccan and other Neopagan groups to register. Some don't always meet in a building, preferring to assemble in a forest or other area away from asphalt and close to nature.

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Some groups may not have a standard marriage ceremony. Some Unitarian Universalist groups, for example, expect the future spouses to write their own ritual and vows. 

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The memorandum appears to assume that each faith group is a denomination of some larger religion. A small new religious movement may not have denominations or individual congregations.

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It seems to imply that only theistic religious groups can be registered. If rigidly applied, this would eliminate entire religions from consideration. Buddhists do not generally worship or recognize a deity. Unitarian Universalist congregations do not generally worship a deity. Members of the Church of Satan are generally Agnostics.

The office appears to be quite concerned that a "denomination" prove its existence over a period of time in the province and elsewhere. We have heard a rumor that a group must have been established in excess of 15 years before it can become registered. This would discriminate against new religious groups, regardless of their sincerity or stability. We suspect that a constitutional lawyer would have a field-day with regulations such as these.

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Becoming eligible to issue income tax receipts:

Some non-profit groups can be registered by Canada Customs and Revenue Agency (formerly called Revenue Canada) for income tax purposes. They are then authorized to issue receipts for donations, so that their supporters can obtain a deduction from their personal income taxes. 2

Unfortunately, the regulations controlling the eligibility of such groups has evolved over centuries from British common law. As long as a non-profit group fits into one of the specific pigeon-holes defined in the regulations, it can become registered. Otherwise, it is out of luck. 3 For example:

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A Christian church typically holds regular services that their members attend; they also might provide free meals for people in poverty and other services for the needy in their community. They can probably be registered. A service club or fraternal organization may also hold regular events that their members attend; they also might provide services for the needy. But they cannot be registered as charities because they "devote their resources to a mix of charitable and non-charitable activities.

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An organization may be founded to fight a specific disease, and be registered as a charity. Another organization might may be founded to raise money to finance medical treatment for a specific individual suffering from the same disease. The latter could not be registered "since it lacks the necessary element of public benefit."

There is some evidence that the Federal Government is planning to overhaul these regulations in order to bring them into line with the public's views of the nature of charitable organizations. But this will not likely happen soon.

One of the existing pigeon-holes is "the advancement of religion." The government's information sheet states that: "

"This category refers to promoting the spiritual teachings of a religious body, and maintaining the doctrines and spiritual observances on which those teachings are based. There has to be an element of theistic worship, which means the worship of a deity or deities in the spiritual sense. To foster a belief in proper morals or ethics alone is not enough to qualify as a charity under this category. A religious body is considered charitable when its activities serve religious purposes for the public good."

This would seem to eliminate the possibility of any Buddhist temple obtaining registration as a charity, because Buddhists generally do not recognize the "worship of a deity or deities in the spiritual sense." One would think that Unitarian Universalist congregations would be similarly out of luck. They have little or no doctrine towhich they require their members to adhere; they do not teach the existence of a deity or deities. Such decisions are left up to the individual members of the congregation. However, both Buddhist temples and Unitarian Universalist congregations are routinely registered by the government. The agency that sponsors this web site would probably be excluded from registration. It explains the full range of beliefs in deity promoted by all of the world's religions. But it teaches none as dogma; it holds no spiritual observances. Similarly, para-church organizations would be excluded from this pigeon-hole, and would have to qualify under some other classification.

This section of the Government's information sheet concludes with:

"The beliefs and practices cannot be what the courts consider subversive or immoral."

Counter-cult and anti-cult groups regularly attack some new religious movements, accusing them of mind control techniques, unethical recruitment policies, etc. This would seem to imply that if a court has accepted the beliefs of a counter or anti-cult group about a new faith group, that the latter might be refused charitable status.

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School prayer:

In 1988, the Ontario Court of Appeal struck down Subsection 28 (1) of Regulation 262 of the Education Act. It defined the structure of religious exercises in public elementary schools. The court decided that a single religion, Christianity, must not be given a position of primacy in the schools. Rather, opening and closing exercises must reflect the multiculturalism and traditions of the people of Ontario. The Ministry of Education altered its regulations so that public school boards have three options:

bulletIt can opt out of exercises entirely, except for the singing of the National Anthem. 
bulletIf can include some "readings that impart social, moral, or spiritual values...that are representative of our multicultural society."  Readings are chosen by the school board "from both scriptural writings, including prayers, and secular writings...Since the social, moral, and spiritual development of Canadians has roots in many religious and philosophical traditions, readings must be drawn from a variety of scriptural and secular sources representative of our multicultural society. Prayers, including the 'Lord's Prayer', may be included, but only as readings." 
bulletThe school board can institute a period of silence for "personal reflection or individual silent prayer." 4 

As is normal in other jurisdictions, parents can ask that their children be excluded from opening or closing exercises. The student can ask to be excused, but only if they are an adult. 

The situation in Ontario is quite different from that in the U.S. where a strict principle of separation of church and state is enforced. 

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References

  1. "Memorandum of requirements for registering a new denomination," Ministry of Consumer and Commercial Relations, Registration Division, Office of the Registrar General, Marriage Office. Telephone: 1-800-461-2156. The organization of this document is rather scrambled: part refers to the process of registering clergy; the rest deals with registering a faith group.
  2. "Gifts and official donation receipts, IT-110R3," Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, 1997-JUN-20. See: http://www.ccra-adrc.gc.ca/E/pub/tp/i110r3em/it110r3e.htm This bulletin discusses gifts to registered charities, and official donation receipts.
  3. "Registering a charity for income tax purposes, T4063(E) (00)," Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, 2000-JAN-21. See: http://www.ccra-adrc.gc.ca/E/pub/tg/t4063em/t4063-e.htm
  4. "Opening and closing exercises in public elementary and secondary schools," Policy/Program Memorandum #108, Ministry of Education, Government of Ontario. See: http://mettowas21.edu.gov.on.ca/extra/eng/ppm/108.html 
  5. "Regulation to amend Regulation 262 of Revised Regulations of Ontario, 1980 made under the Education Act," at: http://mettowas21.edu.gov.on.ca/extra/eng/ppm/108a.html 

Copyright © 2001 and 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-MAR-23
Latest update: 2004-JUL-21
Author: B.A. Robinson

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