Is Christianity in America under attack?
This is a question that many faith-based advocates have been asking over the past few years, particularly in the wake of the federal government's controversial contraceptive mandate and atheists' ongoing attacks on religious symbols.
One prominent piece of anecdotal evidence unfolded when churches in New York City found themselves in an epic battle with the government over renting space in public schools last year. While Mayor Michael Bloomberg and city officials fought to ban the houses of worship from using the public space, churches won an injunction against the city earlier this summer. Now, there's a new battle up north, where faith leaders in Toronto, Canada, are facing similar constraints.
Late last month, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) delivered a stunning blow to churches when it announced that, starting September 1 -- just 48 hours after learning about the change -- that faith-based groups would no longer be able to take advantage of the reduced rental rates that are available to other charitable organizations, World Magazine reports.
The shocking move led to mass rental increases that were double -- even tripple -- what the churches were paying previously. In addition to having virtually no time to come up with the funds to meet the massive monthly rental gap, houses of worship were informed that they will face another 44 percent increase on January 1, 2013 (all renters will be charged this rate).
These actions, considering their swiftness and targeted nature, are being viewed by many as discriminatory and dangerous to churches' survival. With churches sometimes lacking the ability and resources to bring in additional funds, many may face closure without an accessible location to meet in.
According to school district spokespersons, the decision to raise rents was made in February to help close a massive budget gap ($110 million). Apparently, opening the schools up to outside groups has led to a $11 million deficit -- a hole that officials are hoping to close, at least partially, by bringing in more income from faith leaders.
CTV has more about the process through which the district is now classifying churches:
Fees are based on a three-tier rate system. Two levels of subsidized pricing exist for non-profit groups that fit certain criteria.
According to the TDSB, groups such as Scouts Canada, Girl Guides, the YMCA and registered charitable organizations receive subsidized pricing.
A third category, which went in effect this month, lists “all faith based organizations operating educational programs or conducting religious services,” as non-subsidized groups. This category also includes permit users that do not qualify for any of the other permit user categories on the list.
Any permit holders in the “registered non-profit” category received a letter as late as Aug. 29, informing them of the changes to the fees. These groups were suddenly switched and renamed to fall under the “non-subsidized” category.
A list of subsidy changes is published on the TDSB web site. The first point explains that religious organizations are no longer eligible to enjoy rental discounts. Among the other changes are amendments for groups that book "a large number of permits" and Saturday hours of availability:
1. Although religious organizations are mostly “registered non-profit” bodies, the Board has determined that the cost of running religious services will no longer be subsidized. Therefore, these permits will fall into the “non-subsidized” category.
2. In order to provide more equitable access to the subsidy, groups that book a large number of permits will not be eligible for the highest level of subsidy.
3. The “community adult” group has been eliminated. This group will still be eligible for subsidized rates, but at a lower level. Adult groups that book a large number of permits will fall into the Non-Subsidized category.
4. On Saturdays, the subsidized permit hours are shortened, ending at 6 p.m. instead of 10 p.m.
Pastor Dan MacDonald of Grace Toronto Church, a house of worship that meets at a local school, claims that, while there is general outcry, the churches are scattered. "I don't think churches know what to do," he explained. And Pastor Julian Freeman of Grace Fellowship Church, another local congregation, mirrored these sentiments.
"But more important than just the cost issue, it seems to me, is the blatant discrimination against religious groups in general, and Christian churches in particular," Freeman said, noting that his church's monthly rate increased from $990 to $4,000. "The changes to the permitting policy specifically target 'faith-based groups' alone. The TDSB must be called to account for this."
Again, the increases, which amount to 400 percent for some churches, are based on the notion that these churches -- at least in the eyes of of TDSB officials -- are no longer considered charitable groups. The reason for this change in designation isn't currently known.
(H/T: World Magazine)