Are Humanist charities next?

This past week, Dying With Dignity (DWD) announced that the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) has annulled its charitable status. The CRA had been auditing DWD’s political activities and ruled it was wrong to grant the organization charitable status when it was first registered. This news follows a string of recent audits of charities, which started in 2012 when the Harper Government sought to crackdown on charities they worried were getting too political. Under Canadian law, a registered charity cannot devote more than 10% of its resources (money and time) to political campaigning and cannot support or oppose a particular politician or political party.

DWD had registered as an educational charity in 1982 and most of its work involves educating people about patient rights and advance care planning and the case for physician assisted dying. They also offer one-on-one support to individuals who are dying and want to do so on their own terms. DWD also advocates for changes to Canadian law to allow for compassionate options at the end of life. They are active in supporting a Supreme Court challenge to Canada’s ban on assisted suicide.

What’s most concerning about the CRA decision, for me, is not that DWD was found to be too political (it wasn’t) but that it was ruled to not qualify as an educational charity. Because DWD doesn’t have the resources for a lengthy and expensive appeal, this decision could have wide-ranging implications for other charities that come under the newly emboldened CRA-audit squad.

In particular, this could threaten the charitable status of humanist and secular organizations across the country.

First, a brief bit of law and history (with the caveat that while I’ve taken courses in Canadian charity law, I’m neither a lawyer nor historian). Canada’s charity law is based on case law dating to a decision by the House of Lords in England in 1891. That ruling defined four reasons an organization could be deemed charitable: the advancement of religion, the advancement of education, the relief of poverty, or other purposes beneficial to the community. The first three are fairly self explanatory, while the “other” category is mainly defined through court cases and includes promoting health, the arts, the environment, animal welfare, etc. The CRA has examples of acceptable charitable purposes, if you’re curious.

Religious charities, according to the CRA, must have an element of “theistic worship”, so even if humanists were minded (and most aren’t) to hold their noses and register as religious charities, they couldn’t. So in the end most groups, including the BCHA, chose to register their purposes as primarily “educational.”

Now, given that DWD has been ruled a non-educational charity, it leaves me wondering whether other “educational” charities might be at risk. Press Progress points out three anti-choice “educational” charities that don’t seem to be under threat from the string of audits, which looks to be targeted mostly at environmental, foreign aid, and human rights charities who have (actively or not) opposed many of the Harper Government’s policies.

Perhaps the main thing protecting humanist charities in Canada from extensive audits for now is their relative obscurity. Most groups have only dozens to hundreds of members and annual budgets of less than $10,000. Potentially only Centre for Inquiry has a budget of over $250,000 (and maybe the only one over $100,000).

Most humanists are sympathetic to Dying With Dignity’s aims, so this ruling is unfortunate and worrying. While DWD’s staff and board are eager to find some good in the decision – they’re hands are now free to campaign openly for choice in dying – it should still give pause to members of secular charities across the country.

We could be next.

Full disclosure: These opinions are my own. I was a member of DWD & took part in their speaker training program. I was the first Executive Director of the BCHA but am currently in London, UK and have no official role in either organization.

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