Mennonite magazine warned about 'political' articles

A Mennonite church magazine has been told by the Canada Revenue Agency to be careful about the kind of political articles and editorials it publishes.

Canada Revenue Agency's warning a 'chill on speech,' says editor

The Canada Revenue Agency says under the federal Income Tax Act, registered charities can 'engage in a limited amount of related, non-partisan political activity,' but they cannot express support or opposition to a political party or candidate. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A Mennonite church magazine has been told by the Canada Revenue Agency to be careful about the kind of political articles and editorials it publishes.

In a "reminder" letter sent to Canadian Mennonite Publishing Service earlier this year, the federal agency says engaging in "partisan political activities" could jeopardize the organization's charitable status.

Canadian Mennonite is registered as a charity so it can receive operating funds from Mennonite Church Canada and its area churches, as well as provide tax receipts to donors.

"It has come to our attention that recent issues of the Organization's monthly periodical, entitled 'Canadian Mennonite,' have contained editorials and/or articles that appear to promote opposition to a political party, or to candidates for public office," the letter, dated July 23, states in part.

The letter says under the Income Tax Act, charities are "prohibited from engaging in partisan political activities," which include "direct or indirect support of, or opposition to, any political party or candidate for public office."

Canadian Mennonite editor and publisher Dick Benner told CBC News he was shocked to get the warning from the agency.

"It's a chill on speech," Benner said Thursday, after the magazine posted an article and editorial on its website about the revenue agency's warning.

"It tells me that I need to be very careful on what I say about government policy and how I say it. That restricts me as a journalist and as a religious commentator."

Editorials, articles cited

Benner said he phoned the Canada Revenue Agency to ask for specific examples. An audit officer cited two editorials and four articles.

In one editorial, written before the May 2011 federal election, Benner urged readers to  cast their votes based on the Mennonite beliefs of pacifism, social justice and environmentalism.

The same editorial criticized two Conservative MPs — including Public Safety Minister Vic Toews — for distancing themselves from their Mennonite heritage.

In an editorial written shortly after the election, Benner commented on the killing of Osama bin Laden by the U.S. military and "the takeover by a militaristic Conservative majority government" in Canada.

"I didn't see this as political advocacy because we were speaking out of our core beliefs," Benner said.

The articles that were cited by the Canada Revenue Agency were published in the magazine's Young Voices section. They included:

  • A story on the Mennonite Church's concerns about the federal omnibus crime bill.
  • An article on how the death of NDP leader Jack Layton inspired some young Mennonites to get involved in politics.
  • An article about Mennonite youth urging the federal government to "spend less money on war" by sending paper airplanes to Ottawa.
  • A story about the Manitoba election campaign, profiling young Mennonite adults who were thinking about who they would vote for.

No partisan politics allowed

The Canada Revenue Agency says it does not comment on specific cases.

In an email to CBC News, an agency spokesman said charities are allowed to participate in some political activity, but not partisan politics.

"While registered charities cannot be established for political purposes, the [Income Tax] Act does allow them to engage in a limited amount of related, non-partisan political activity provided that the charity devotes substantially all of its resources to charitable activities," the spokesman said.

Charities that do not comply with the act could face audits and sanctions, and could even have their charitable status revoked, the spokesman said.

"This isn't a question of freedom of speech, it's a question of freedom of subsidized speech," says James Christie, who heads up the Ridd Institute for Religion and Global Policy at the University of Winnipeg.

"There is a price for the privilege of being able to receive tax easement for the positions that one holds."

Benner said Canadian Mennonite will obey the law, but he added that staff are seeking advice about what the Canada Revenue Agency's warning could mean for future publications.

With files from the CBC's Karen Pauls