Federal Court of Appeal Holds that Atheism is not a Religion

January 2020 Charity & NFP Law Update

Jennifer M. Leddy


On November 29, 2019, the Federal Court of Appeal delivered its judgment in Church of Atheism of Central Canada v Canada (National Revenue). The Church of Atheism of Central Canada (“CACC”), a federal corporation that was incorporated for the purpose of “preach[ing] Atheism through charitable activities,” had applied to the CRA for charitable status. However, the Minister of National Revenue (“Minister”) denied CACC’s application on the basis that it did not meet the requirement for registration under the ITA and did not meet the three court-established elements that are fundamental to “religion.” CACC appealed the Minister’s decision, arguing that it violated its freedom of conscience and religion and equality rights, as well as violated multicultural heritage provisions under sections 2(a), 15 and 27, respectively, of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (“Charter”). 

The court first considered and dismissed CACC’s Charter claims. In particular, while previous courts had found that section 2(a) of the Charter protected the right to practice atheistic beliefs, the court found that the Minister’s refusal to grant charitable registration did not “interfere in a manner that is more than trivial or insubstantial with the appellant’s members’ ability to practise their atheistic beliefs.” On the contrary, CACC’s purpose and activities could continue to be carried out without registration. With respect to equality rights under section 15 of the Charter, the Court followed existing case law in finding that section 15 did not apply to CACC because section 15 only applies to individuals. Concerning section 27 of the Charter on multicultural heritage, the court followed precedent in finding that section 27 is an interpretative not a substantive provision that can be violated. 

The court then considered whether CACC met the requirements for advancing religion as a charitable purpose, noting that the courts have held that to be a religion it is necessary to have been already recognized as a religion by the courts or to have the same fundamental characteristics of recognized religions, including (1) faith in a higher unseen power such as a God, entity, or Supreme Being; (2) worship of the higher unseen power; and (3) a particular and comprehensive system of faith and worship. Since Atheism had not been previously recognized as a religion, the Minister considered whether it met the three elements of religion as determined by the courts. The Minister determined that Atheism did not have any of the three elements. In particular, the Minister found that the “worship of energy” did not meet the requirement that there be belief in a higher unseen power such as a God, Supreme Being, or entity, and that it could not meet the second element of worshiping a higher unseen power if it didn’t exist. 

Significantly, the court agreed with CACC that a higher unseen entity and reverence of that entity is not always required, such as in the case of Buddhism, which is a recognized religion. However, the court found that Atheism did not meet the third element of a particular and comprehensive system of faith and worship. While CACC had argued that its “doctrine of mainstream science” fulfilled this element, the court agreed with the Minister that mainstream science is neither particularly specific nor precise. While CACC had also argued that religions should not be required to have an authoritative book (e.g. the Bible), the court left that matter for a future court to decide. The court therefore found that CACC was not advancing religion, and that it was reasonable for the Minister to deny CACC charitable status on that ground. 

While CACC had also argued that it was a religious self-help group that fit within the charitable purpose of “certain other purposes beneficial to the community”, the court found that CACC’s activities were for their members only and were not rehabilitative or therapeutic. It therefore also found the Minister’s denial of charitable status on that ground to be reasonable, and dismissed CACC’s appeal.

It should be noted that the court’s finding is not inconsistent from that of R.C. v District School Board of Niagara, discussed in Church Law Bulletin No. 45, in which the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario held that atheism was a “creed” under the Ontario Human Rights Code, but which nonetheless did not equate atheism with religion. However, while that decision is limited to the protection afforded by the Ontario Human Rights Code, this court decision applies more broadly and provides helpful insight into both the CRA’s and the court’s understanding of religion in the charitable sense. 

This case is significant because the court agreed with CACC that “the requirement that the belief system have faith in a higher Supreme Being or entity or reverence of said Supreme Being is not always required when considering the meaning of religion.” The court also reiterated that charitable registration is a privilege, and not a right, that functions as an indirect tax subsidy to encourage work carried out by registered charities.


Read the January 2020 Issue

The CRA's Guidance on Journalism: Clarifying Tax Credits, QCJOs and RJOs
Advisory Committee on the Charitable Sector Holds December Meetings
Legislation Update
-   Provisions of Budget Implementation Act No. 1, 2019 Now In Force
-   Proposed Changes to Employee Stock Option Regime Delayed
-   2020 Budget Consultations in Ontario
-   Ontario Regulations under the Connecting Care Act, 2019
-   Alberta Senate Election Act
-   Nova Scotia's Plastic Bags Reduction Act
-   Yukon's New Liquor Act
Corporate Update
-   ONCA Coming into Force Delayed
-   Updated Policies on Corrections of Articles or a Certificate for Business and Not-for-Profit Corporations
-   Corporations Canada Makes Changes for Online Services to Not-for-Profits
-   Certain Amendments to Ontario's Co-operative Corporations Act in Force
-   New Brunswick's Cooperatives Act Proclaimed in Force
Voluntary Association's Constitution and By-Laws Found to be Contractual
Tax Court Decision on Split Receipting and Donative Intent Upheld on Appeal
Federal Court of Appeal Holds that Atheism is not a Religion
CRA Technical Interpretation Regarding Loanbacks by a Qualified Donee
CRA Technical Interpretation on Prescribed Rates and Undue Benefits
Termination Clause Found to be Void and Unenforceable by the Court of Appeal
The Federal Court Establishes the Test for a Site-blocking Order
Alberta Court of Appeal Rules that Charter Applies to Freedom of Expression by Students on University Campus
Anti-Terrorism/Money Laundering Update
-   Global Fragility Act of 2019
-   EU Renews its Terrorist List
-   OSFI Ceases Publishing Lists of Designated Persons
Charities Legislation & Commentary, 2020 Edition Now Available