State vs. Church: Canada's Taxman Threatens Bishop For Comments

CALGARY, Alberta — A Canadian tax official has threatened a Catholic diocese's charitable tax status over politics. Calgary Bishop Fred Henry said the saga started last spring when he made comments about how Catholic teachings should impact voters' decisions.

The Globe and Mail reported Oct. 22 that Bishop Henry said a Canadian Revenue Agency official “threatened to lift the Church's charitable status in the city because of a letter he wrote to his flock saying Prime Minister Paul Martin was not a good Catholic politician.”

Bishop Henry said the official asked him to remove a pastoral letter entitled “Faith and Governing” from the diocesan website. The letter, posted in June during the campaign, criticized Martin for “moral incoherence” on the issues of abortion and same-sex “marriage.”

Martin, a Catholic who highlighted his support for abortion and homosexual unions during the campaign, narrowly won reelection June 28.

In response to the tax official's demand, “I said, ‘Of course not,’” Bishop Henry told The Globe and Mail. He said the official complained that the letter gave the impression that the bishop was telling Calgary Catholics how to vote, then ended the 20-minute conversation by warning that he planned to file a report with his superior about the discussion.

Bishop Henry made his comments Oct. 21 in Cornwall, Ontario, during the plenary assembly of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Churches Warned

In August, the pro-life Internet news service Lifesite reported that the Canada Revenue Agency had warned representatives of the Canadian bishops’ conference and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada three months before the election about making comments like those in Bishop Henry's pastoral letter.

Lifesite reported that the bishops' legal counsel, Jennifer Leddy, and the fellowship's counsel, Janet Epp Buckingham, were invited to a meeting with tax officials in March. Neither the attorneys, nor Shane Diaczuk, communications director for the minister of national revenue, would say which revenue officials were present.

It is also unknown exactly what was discussed, although Diaczuk said the purpose was to discuss new guidelines, promulgated in September 2003, regarding the political activities of charities. According to Lifesite, revenue agency spokeswoman Dawna Lynn Labonté characterized the guidelines as meaning “that not only would churches be penalized for telling congregants to vote for a certain party or candidate, they would also be penalized for coming out strongly on an issue on which the parties were opposed, such as abortion or same-sex ‘marriage.’”

The issue of whether churches can speak out on issues in a campaign received attention in the weeks before the U.S. national election, when Catholics for a Free Choice complained to the Internal Revenue Service about the archdioceses of Denver and St. Louis. The archbishops there were among several U.S. bishops urging voters to make the right to life a central issue in choosing the next president.

Labonté told Lifesite, “There are certain issues, especially during election times, that are very political,” and “The best thing for a charity to do, especially during an election, is to stay away from those issues.”

When asked whether Labonté's comments were government policy, national revenue spokesman Diaczuk said she had “miscommunicated.” Specifically, he said, “When she said ‘political,’ she probably meant to say ‘partisan.’”

Under Canadian law, churches and other charitable organizations are prohibited from partisan political activity during an election campaign. Diaczuk said the Catholic Church could say its members should support pro-life politicians or parties and should not support pro-abortion and pro-homosexual politicians or parties, but could not specify who these politicians or parties are.

Explained Diaczuk, “You can't put the whole thing together.”

Leddy told the Register that the March meeting “was an opportunity to talk about who we are, our mission, what it means to preach the Gospel … it was a very constructive type of meeting.” Canadian bishops' conference spokesman William Kokesch refused comment, saying, “We weren't invited.” He denied that the meeting was in any way coercive, and declared, “A few weeks after that meeting, we issued our document on the election; it didn't prevent us from doing that.”

The Canadian bishops' statement was generically pro-life and did not condemn or extol any politicians or parties.

Buckingham, the attorney for the evangelical fellowship, denied that her and Leddy's refusal to name those present at the meeting proved they feared retribution. “People might think that may be the case,” she said, “but these are people (from the Canadian Revenue Agency) that don't need to have their names splashed out there.”

Basilian Father Alphonse de Valk, editor of Catholic Insight magazine, has a different view of the revenue agency's actions. The Toronto priest noted that the Catholic Church and the evangelicals — the only Canadian Christians to have taken a strong, public stand against the homosexual agenda — were the only denominations summoned to meet with the Canadian Revenue Agency.

Said Father de Valk, “You can draw the implication that both groups are being blackmailed into silence for being opposed to gay marriage.”

National Post editorial board member Lorne Gunter described the March meeting as “a continuation of the CRA's drive to politicize charitable status. One of their most senior adjudicators is a militant gay-rights activist and vehemently pro-choice, and he has set about to delist from charitable status pro-life and pro-family organizations.”

Bishops Respond

While the Canadian bishops' conference downplayed the significance of the March meeting when it came to light in August, several bishops attending the October plenary assembly were astounded that the diocese's charitable status would be threatened, Bishop Henry told America's Catholic News Service in a telephone interview Oct. 27.

Most of the bishops were unaware of the incident when the subject came up during closed-door talks at the plenary, Bishop Henry said.

A Canadian Revenue Agency spokesman declined to comment on Bishop Henry's allegations, saying only that the agency acts on complaints it receives about charities, as well as on its own observations.

Asked whether he would post such a pastoral letter again during a federal election campaign, Bishop Henry said, “I don't know, depending what the issues are. But I don't care if it's Mr. Martin or any other Catholic politician — if you're going to be making public statements and at the same time parade under the banner of being a devout Catholic, and you're acting contrary to the teaching of the Church, somebody's going to call you into account, and in all likelihood, I might be one of those people.”

Kevin Michael Grace writes from Victoria, British Columbia.

(CNS and Register staff contributed to this story.)