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Outgoing Letters and Public Statements

June 6, 2011

An Open Letter to the Minister of Tourism and Culture re: The Limiting Effect of the Ontario Heritage Act on Religious Practice in Ontario

The Honourable Michael Chan
Minister of Tourism and Culture
Hearst Block, 9th Floor
900 Bay Street
Toronto, ON M7A 2E1

Dear Mr. Chan,

The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) was encouraged to hear that the Ontario Government is committed to working with faith communities in the preservation of our religious culture by preserving a number of aging church buildings as cultural heritage sites.

Churches were once the anchor of almost every community in Ontario, and remain so in many. Before they built schools or town halls people gathered together to establish houses of worship. Over the decades, new church buildings were built to accommodate growing towns and cities. Today, Ontario’s Christian churches own some 3,000 church buildings, ranging from quaint to magnificent, including some of the most spectacular and historic buildings in Ontario. About 350 of those churches are designated under the Ontario Heritage Act (the Act).

The Act has been around since 1975, but it was augmented in 2005, with regulations that enable municipal councils to prevent changes to, or the demolition of, historic buildings, and even require their owners to maintain them if assessed as being neglected. There are good reasons for the Act, however it also has the dangerous downside of restricting or limiting the vocation Ontario’s churches were founded to do and, perhaps, unduly infringing on the religious freedom of the denominations and congregations that own the buildings to “manifest [their] religious belief by worship” as noted by the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. Big M Drug Mart:

The essence of the concept of freedom of religion is the right to entertain such religious beliefs as a person chooses, the right to declare religious beliefs openly and without fear of hindrance or reprisal, and the right to manifest religious belief by worship and practice or by teaching and dissemination. (emphasis added)

It has been demonstrated that every year, the Anglican, Catholic and United Churches alone in Ontario spend over $30 million operating properties that have been designated under the Act, and a similar amount fixing and improving them. This does not include the church buildings that have been acquired by other religious groups, including Evangelical congregations. In many cases, church buildings designated under the Act remain lively and active places, where worship services are well attended. Many churches still function as community hubs, offering a range of activities, from clubs to shelters for the homeless.

These vibrant congregations are being forced to take money away from other vital functions – whether that is supporting the disadvantaged, hosting AA and similar groups or running activities for children and youth (e.g. Scouts and Guides) – in order to meet heritage requirements. In addition, many are being prevented from modernizing elements of the buildings to meet with the needs of operating in the contemporary world.

Certainly, in the Evangelical Christian community, as well as other Christian expressions, we regard service to others as part of our “reasonable worship”.

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:4-17, emphasis added)

So that worship may be considered both the form of “service” that takes place on a Sunday morning and the form of “service” that takes place in feeding the poor, providing a place to get out of the cold, etc. This latter form of service or worship is sometimes differentiated by being referred to as “mission.”

Admittedly, some church buildings are or are becoming redundant. Congregations have exited or are substantially decreasing in number. Some of these congregations can no longer afford or attract pastoral leaders. Others have made arrangements with retired ministers, ministers willing to work part-time for each of multiple congregations and ministers who visit to preach but are not otherwise engaged with the congregation.

Although the details vary, churches are generally funded by their congregations through donations and related charitable fundraising efforts. But faith communities have limited funds, and many operational costs competing for those funds.

The cost of maintaining church buildings that are no longer needed or are housing congregations that are losing their vitality is egregious. Some congregations are simply not capable of financing the long-term preservation of historic buildings.

Until 2005, churches could make decisions about the use of their properties based solely on the needs of their congregations and those they served. But the changes to the Ontario Heritage Act have given municipalities the authority to permanently block demolition or alteration of designated buildings. Designated churches have to get permission from their municipal council to change in any way the parts of the building that are considered “culturally significant,” which in most cases includes the seating, windows, altars and other parts of the building used for worship.

The criteria for deciding whether a site should be designated under the Act are so general that almost any church in Ontario could be said to meet them. To qualify, a property just has to have “direct associations with a theme, event, belief, person, activity, organization or institution that is significant to a community.”  And yet, when applied, the Act  - and through the Act municipal councils – may prevent churches from making reasonable, necessary changes to their property, while enforcing congregational responsibility to maintain it.

Municipal councils face no negative consequences if they designate a property that has little or no historic value. Designation may even be used as a tool simply to block unpopular changes.

As it stands, the Ontario Heritage Act may place churches’ social and municipal responsibilities in direct conflict. In order to deal with this situation, we understand that the Ministry of Tourism and Culture has been working with an Interfaith Group with representation from the Roman Catholic, United and Anglican Churches to produce a Guideline for authorities dealing with religious heritage properties.

This Guideline, in a draft form is available at http://www.mtc.gov.on.ca/en/publications/places_worship_guide_english_11.pdf .  The Ministry of Culture has requested comments from the public on the draft guideline before it is finalized. 

The document is intended to provide guidance on the conservation, protection, disposal and demolition of heritage properties built or adapted as places of worship in Ontario, in recognition of their unique circumstances.

The guidelines are also intended to assist in planning for and making decisions on the conservation and stewardship of heritage places of worship, with the goal of keeping places of worship alive and relevant as community centres of worship and mission.

The EFC urges the government of Ontario to respect the autonomy of functioning church congregations – the collective expression of religion, entitled to recognition of religious freedom under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms – in Ontario. Church denominations and congregations are entitled to the freedom to conduct their religious affairs as they see best, in order to fulfill their high calling to minister to their members and society at large. These are, after all, most frequently the bodies that have established and maintained the buildings in question throughout the buildings’ life.

If municipal governments are given unfettered authority over property owned by religious groups, there will be provincially sanctioned infringements on their freedom of religion. Such infringement cannot be justified in a free and democratic society.

Sincerely,

Don Hutchinson
Vice-President, General Legal Counsel
Director, Centre for Faith and Public Life
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada

cc:

The Honourable Dalton McGuinty
Premier of Ontario
Room 281, Main Legislative Building,
Queen's Park
Toronto, Ontario M7A 1A1

Mr. Tim Hudak
Leader, Official Opposition
Room 381, Main Legislative Building
Queen's Park
Toronto, Ontario M7A 1A8

Mr. Ted Arnott
Critic, Tourism and Culture
Room 420, Main Legislative Building,
Queen's Park
Toronto, Ontario M7A 1A8

Ms. Andrea Horwath
Leader, New Democratic Party of Ontario
Room 113, Main Legislative Building,
Queen's Park
Toronto, Ontario M7A 1A5

Mr. Peter Tabuns
Critic, Culture (NDP)
Room 165, Main Legislative Building,
Queen's Park
Toronto, Ontario M7A 1A5

 

Outgoing Letters

2011-present
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EFC President Bruce J. Clemenger writes regular commentaries about public policy issues. The EFC magazine Faith Today often publishes articles and essays that examine such issues.

   
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