Faith communities should feel confident about their dollars-and-cents contributions to society in the face of a growing movement to eliminate their tax-free status, attendees at a Toronto interfaith forum heard March 11.
“Faith communities-synagogues, mosques, churches, temples-are integral to the fabric of our communities in terms of supporting what a community desires to do with and for itself,” said Mike Wood Daly, research lead at the Halo Canada Project, a research project aimed at measuring the economic impact of religious communities. “We’re not just an isolated island in communities, but we’re members within that community, and we can through our economic stimulus…be of benefit,” he said.
Wood Daly was speaking at Exploring Sacred Space: Regenerating Places of Faith, the annual forum of Faith & the Common Good, a national interfaith organization.
Since 2015, the Halo Canada Project, funded by a range of faith-based organizations, including the Anglican diocese of Toronto, has been attempting to gauge the measureable impact faith communities can bring in the form of everything from community garden plots to counselling services. An initial pilot study looked at 10 Toronto congregations-eight Protestant and two Muslim; since then, the study has been widened to cover 25 congregations of various faith traditions. The pilot study found a total “halo effect” of $45 million per year for the 10 congregations-a considerable sum, Wood Daly said, given these 10 make up only a small fraction of Toronto’s faith communities.
“Can you imagine if we…multiplied that by more than a thousand congregations [to approximate the total] that are in the city of Toronto, what it would cost the city of Toronto to even begin to replace some of those programs and services?” he said.
For the 25 congregations, the total halo effect came to $73 million, according to the study.
Halo then looked at how governments would benefit if faith communities were taxed, and found that this amounted to only a fraction of the financial benefit they bring. For example, Wood Daly said, one congregation in Toronto’s Bloor and Yonge area was found to have a halo effect of about $1.5 million; if governments eliminated tax exemptions-property tax, rebates to sales tax and personal tax credits to donors-to faith communities, they would get about $366,000 from the same congregation. The findings suggest, he said, that taxing faith communities would be of questionable benefit to society.
“It’s a pretty significant difference-if we didn’t have that charitable tax privilege, we would be hard-pressed to continue to serve the communities in the same way, and yet our communities would ultimately be receiving an economic deficit because of our inability or our incapacity to perform and to serve in many of the same ways that we do now,” he said.
One practical use of the Halo research, he said, might be to counter arguments in favour of taxing faith communities.
“Hopefully, one of the benefits of doing a study like this is that we can use it in advocacy-because there is a pretty strong lobby…at present to reduce or eliminate the charitable tax status,” he said.
In an interview, Wood Daly said he knew of at least one municipality-Langley, B.C.-in which reducing an exemption on property tax for faith communities has already been proposed. The motion failed after a protest against it by religious and secular community groups.
One of the protestors, the Rev. Paula Porter Leggett, of St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, told a local newspaper the church would have had to close its doors if the motion had passed.