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Elliot Leven

Government Money for Religious Groups

By Elliot Leven

Winnipeg media have recently covered a controversial plan by Youth for Christ to build a youth centre on a vacant lot at Main and Higgins. The group has raised about $1 million of its own money and hopes to raise another $4 million. It has secured about $3.2 million in federal government funding. The City of Winnipeg will likely kick in about $4.2 million in City funding. No provincial government funding has been offered to date. Some supporters of the project have focused on the fact that the lot at Higgins and Main has been vacant for years, and no other group has a concrete plan to develop it.

NDP Member of Parliament Pat Martin has criticized the use of government funds for the project. Federal Conservative cabinet minister Vic Toews has defended the plan. Winnipeg mayor Sam Katz supports the plan and publicly refers to the fact that he is Jewish while commenting on this issue.

A quick glance at the Youth for Christ Canada website ( makes it clear that this is a proselytizing organization.  It boasts of its success in targeting youth with its Christian message.  It lists as one of its goals:
“Sharing the person of Christ with every young person within our target group in Canada (5.4 million youth). This will require the development of new strategies as well as strengthening existing efforts.”

The controversy raises several broader questions.  Firstly, in a pluralistic society like ours, should government be giving any money to any religious organization?  How about listing religious houses of worship as registered charities (which is an indirect way of providing federal and provincial government funding for any such house of worship that manages to attract charitable donations)?

Where do Jewish organizations (other than synagogues) fit in? Judaism is a religion, but being Jewish is also an ethnic and cultural identity, and some Jewish organizations are more ethnic than religious.  A few are even anti-religious. 

Federal government funding helped build the Asper Campus.  Manitoba Jewish organizations apply for and receive funding from various government programs, such as Manitoba’s Community Places program.  If all governments were to deny all funding to all organizations with any religious aspect, there is no doubt that Jewish organizations would suffer.

Should there be any distinction between religious organizations that proselytize (like Youth for Christ) and those that don’t (like Jewish organizations)?

Should the personal religious beliefs of those politicians in power be allowed to influence which groups get the government money?   One can’t help but wonder how enthusiastic Vic Toews would be about federal funding for a gay community centre in Winnipeg. Or in Steinbach.

All politicians pay lip service to the separation of church and state.  In a diverse, multicultural nation like Canada, this separation is very important.   When governments provide funds to some religious organizations for some projects, the separation between church and state is blurred.

Perhaps all that can be said about the issue is that it should be debated openly and honestly, with an attempt to reach a broad consensus.  Focusing only on the narrow context of the Youth for Christ  centre at Higgins and Main is not a sensible way to resolve the larger issue.

Elliot Leven is a Winnipeg lawyer. His preferred practice areas are labour and employment law. He has been a Commissioner on the Manitoba Human Rights Commission since 2002. In his free time, he currently serves as president of the Community Unemployed Help Centre.

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