Church Leaders in Toronto Upset at Having to Pay Fair Price for Rental Space

The Toronto District School Board is facing a $110,000,000 budget shortfall so they need to come up with ways to save or make money before they resort to more drastic actions (like laying off staff).

One example: Raising the cost for community groups to rent out school space. Not only is the price going up, there’s been an overhaul of the categories (PDF) indicating which groups get cheaper (subsidized) rates.

Did you catch that bit at the end? Turns out religious groups aren’t getting special treatment anymore. In fact, they’ll have to pay the same rate as, say, adult sports leagues who want to rent out the gym.

As you might predict, Christian leaders in the area aren’t handling this news very well:

It feels like constructive eviction,” said Pastor Dan MacDonald of Grace Toronto Church. “Our confidence in the board has been greatly damaged, and I would like an answer as to why religious groups got singled out.”

MacDonald said his church is facing an increase from $78,000 to $190,000 annually for the use of Rosedale Heights’s auditorium, cafeteria, and a few classrooms for four hours a week.

Rev. Yoga Thomas of Scarborough’s Living Word Missionary Church said he was left “clueless, frustrated and disappointed” after learning his annual agreement would rise to more than $100,000 from $14,000 if the church uses the same facilities.

No one’s getting “singled out.” This isn’t discrimination. This is business. The school district doesn’t owe the local churches any favors. They have every right to rent out the facilities at whatever prices they see fit and the churches can either pay the rent or find other space.

It’s amazing that so many of the stories I write about on this site are about minorities (atheists, LGBT groups, etc.) fighting for equal access… while stories of Christian groups tend to focus on how they want special access.

(Thanks to Dorothy for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Larry Meredith

    Yikes… you really could have put that a better way than “They have every right to rent out the facilities at whatever prices they see fit.” What if they want to charge an obscene amount of money specifically to one group of people? Wouldn’t that be discrimination?

    I’m not saying they’re being singled out. Churches are being charged the same as anyone else that’s not specifically in the subsidized list. But framing it as “they can charge whatever they want and if you don’t like it, go somewhere else” sounds like a fallacious argument that could be said exactly the same way for any kind of bigotry.

  • Life Post-Shaggy

    They’re also upset because “places of worship” are being removed from zoning regulations for light industrial zones (the reason for this is that light industrial buildings produce so many jobs, which churches do not). They’re fully allowed to build churches in any other zone, and reapply for zoning changes to the area, but apparently this means a direct attack on freedom to worship and assemble for religious purposes.

  • Almost Ambitious

     Presumably if the churches were doing some real good in the community they’d have charitable status anyway, so they should look to helping their neighbours rather than themselves if they want special treatment.

  • jdm8

    If I thought he meant that, I would agree, but I wonder if you’re reading a bit much into his statement, especially in light of his statements on equal access. Charging exorbitant prices for access to some groups and not others isn’t equal access.

  • Larry Meredith

    I just think the way he phrased it has some fallacy to it, as any number of discriminatory practices could be defended the same way.

  • Rich Wilson

    Interesting that the Young Man’s Christian Association is subsidized.  My YMCA experience in Canada was purely secular, but aren’t they still officially Christian?  (Even if there is a reason the Village People wrote a song about them).  And what about the YWCA?

  • Literate

    But, they _were_ singled out, in the press release. They were the only group specifically named as exempt from subsidy. It’s fine to argue they shouldn’t get subsidies. I agree with you. And yes, they are complaining that they’re not receiving special treatment. But the were, specifically and denotatively, “singled out”. 

  • The Other Weirdo

    What’s jumping out at me from that the organizations specifically being subsidized are the ones providing real value to the community. Religious education and prayer meetings don’t fall into that category.

  • The Other Weirdo

     The one place I’ve never seen any Christian references was in YMCA buildings. Maybe they’re technically Christian, but they don’t seem to wear that on their sleeves, nor take it particularly seriously.

  • Rovin’ Rockhound

    If the atheists were complaining about not getting special treatment and being treated like everybody else, then it’s a perfectly valid statement.

  • Larry Meredith

    Yes, and the argument would (or at least should) be “there’s no discrimination, the atheists will have to pay and be treated the same as everyone else.”

    Saying ” They have every right to rent out the facilities at whatever prices they see fit and the [whatever] can either pay the rent or find other space” makes it sound like it would be perfectly fine to set prices unfairly, as long as the school board saw fit to do so. It’s seems fallacious to me because it doesn’t say why it’s not discriminatory.

  • Guest.

    Imagine, a school focusing it’s limited resources on education and programs for children.  I’m glad they have their priorities straight.

  • Peter C Lainas

    Just for reference, in case it hasn’t been posted, here are the rates: 
    It lists both the charges now and effective as of Jan. 1st 2013. I’m part of a faith based organization myself (not Christian) that rents space from the private sector for our gatherings. Based on the space provided, they’re providing reasonable rates on some spaces but outrageous rates on others.

  • Angelica Nightingale

    aren’t religious organizations tax exempt? They should have enough money in their budget to pay standard fees – just like tax-payers do! If allowed special status, who’s there to stop other religious organizations to expect the same privileges and obtain them?

  • Larry Meredith

    Maybe I’m reading it wrong, but it seems like even if the churches have registered charitable status, they won’t get a subsidy if they still offer educational programs or conduct religious services.

    I dunno, this thing is confusing to me.

  • Richard Wade

    Privilege is habit-forming and clouds one’s vision.

    If you’ve grown accustomed to being catered to, then you’ll feel deprived when you have to make your own bed and wash your own dishes. If you’ve become accustomed to getting a discount, then you’ll feel cheated when you have to pay the fair market rate. If you’ve become accustomed to getting away with violating the First Amendment’s non-establishment clause, you’ll think your rights are being violated when you’re told that like everyone else, you must be bound by the same law that has been protecting you.

    If you’ve become accustomed to thinking you deserve all this privilege because God is on your side, you’ll think that those who are no longer willing to give you that privilege are on the side of the devil.

  • Sharon Crawford

     The churches didn’t mind when they were “singled out” to get a free ride.

  • Sharon Crawford

    No faith of any kind is required to join/use the facilities of the YMCA or YWCA. That also includes the YMHA and YWHA.

  • kenneth

    The school system shouldn’t be subsidizing ANY outside organizations as a general matter. Tax funds designated for a school district are for educating the students in that system, not running an ad-hoc social service landlording operation. Set the fees for outside high enough to cover the true costs of maintaining the space plus a small markeup. Make sure the price is very competitive with private alternatives, and offer substantial discounts for organizations that sign multi-year agreements, take large blocks of time or take time slots unpopular with others. No group should be getting free/nominal fee use unless that group is directly sponsored by the schools or writes a grant specifically for that group which includes space as a form of donation.  If churches or any other group wants their own space, they need to raise the funds from their own membership to support it. 

  • kenneth

    A better way to phrase it that I think captures the original intent would be to say that the school system has no obligation to subsidize anyone with below-cost rent. Charging whatever they want is a more complex matter. I don’t know Canadian law, but here in the U.S., a couple of considerations come into play. One, you’d have to make sure that you weren’t singling a group out for a much higher special price. Another doctrine that has developed at least here in Illinois is that the price you charge for higher outside use has to bear some rational relationship to the real costs.

     In other words, public beaches, pools etc will often charge two times or more for non-resident admission. The theory is that outsiders who don’t normally contribute their tax money to the facility should have to square up when they come in the gate. There’s supposed to be some sort of rough parity in other words.  If your cost of renting an auditorium is $1,000 a night, it’s perfectly ok to tell a church they can’t keep getting it for $100. On the other hand, you probably can’t charge them $10,000 because you don’t like the pastor or the theology….

  • Tainda

    “He was left clueless”  That happened long before this situation, buddy.

  • Anonymous Atheist

    I think this was because a) without stating it specifically as being in the non-subsidized category, the religious groups might want to argue that they qualify as “a registered charitable organization” to be in subsidy level 2; and b) if the previous version of the list had the religious organizations bullet point in another category, for clarity it is good to explicitly move it to the new category, instead of just deleting it.

  • Anonymous Atheist

    If they want to use the space to do something that’s actually charitable instead of a religious service or ‘educating’ people about their religion, e.g. a food drive or toy drive or something, then I’d think they’d get the category 2 rate.

  • Stev84

    If non-religious charities were run the same way as churches, they’d be in deep trouble. Most of the money churches rake on is spent on themselves. The amount they spend for actual charity is often miniscule. They just manage to hide this because they don’t have to file expense reports like genuine charities in order to justify their legal status.

  • Philly Atheist

    Isn’t the YMCA tied to a religious organization?    Christians in Toronto should be surprised that some of those groups are still on the subsidized list!

  • Ibis3

     Tax funds aren’t being used to subsidize anything. The TDSB is making additional  funds by renting out their facilities to other groups in the community when they would otherwise go unused. They just choose to give certain orgs a discounted rate because doing so benefits the community and especially the children of the community. You know, the same ones who attend the school? If those kids are attending after school activities, they’re less likely to be involving themselves in criminal or abusive activities (either as perpetrators or victims). It’s kind of a big picture thing. Which, I might add, I think most Ontarian taxpayers would be just fine with.

  • TheBlackCat

    He said “rent” singular, as in a single rent that applies to everyone.  There is no indication that this would entail high rents for individual groups, rather that a single rent is set, and those who can’t pay it shouldn’t use the space.

  • Garren

    That’s how I read it too. “Here are our guidelines …unless your organization is religious.”

    If this were a U.S. public school district, it would be unconstitutional for a government entity to exclude based on religion. See Good News Club v. Milford Central School, 533 U.S. 98 (2001).

    This is a good situation to gauge whether atheists are really for religious freedom or just against religion.

  • Kevin_Of_Bangor

    Stop making sense, Richard. It is getting old.

  • A3Kr0n

     Young Men’s Christian Association

  • DougI

     It’s one of those religious groups in origin but operates in a secular manner, like Habitat for Humanity.  I’m guessing YMCA doesn’t discriminate in hiring and doesn’t promote religion.  Also probably why Girl Scouts got the discount but Boy Scouts didn’t.

  • Mark Hunter

    No Boy Scouts got the same level as Girl Guides.   Scouts Canada is quite different from its US counterpart.   Scouts Canada does not discriminate against homosexuals, either as leaders or as Scouts.   Also I am a Scout leader and an atheist.   Scouts Canada was okay with that.

  • TheBlackCat

     Religious groups were not singled out.  What was singled out where faith-based groups doing only educational or religious services.  Faith-based groups falling under the other categories would still be acceptable.

    If Canada is anything like the U.S., such groups could have charitable status but not being doing any actual charitable work.  So, if my understanding is right, they are not singling them out because they are faith-based, but rather because they are not doing charitable work as defined in the other sections.  Without such a clarification they could still be included under group 2, however, so this makes sure only actual practicing charities can be involved.

    If there was another major “charitable” group that didn’t actually do any charity work yet they still get the discount than I could see that being a problem.  I am not aware of such a group, though.

  • TheBlackCat

     They aren’t being excluded.  They are being charged the same rate as any other group doing non-charitable work.

  • TheBlackCat

     Let’s look at this under the Lemon test, which is the standard SCOTUS test for establishment and free exercise clause cases:

    1.The government’s action must have a secular legislative purpose;
    This is part of an overall attempt to keep the school district from losing money.  This is a secular purpose under any useful definition of the term.
    2. The government’s action must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion;

    Considering the number of different types of groups involved, it cannot be argued that the primary effect of this is on religious groups.

    3. The government’s action must not result in an “excessive government entanglement” with religion.The sole government entanglement here is not giving a subset of religious groups a discount compared to non-faith-based groups doing similar tasks.  I can’t imagine how this could be considered entanglement at all, rather it specifically avoids giving religious groups special treatment.

  • ModVAVet


  • Baby_Raptor

    One can be both at the same time. I’m against pretty much all religion, but I don’t want to deny others their rights to practice what they want. 

    Nice attempt at a potshot, though. Sorry it utterly fails.

  • DougI

     Thanks, I missed that.  Glad to know the Boy Scouts in Canada are more civilized, but everything in Canada seems to be more civilized than in the States.

  • heisenberg


  • Ixoreus

     I can’t speak for Canada, but in the US, the YMCA is very definitely a Christian organization.   My daughter went to a preschool run by the YMCA.   She was definitely exposed to religion – the YMCA employees and Board of Directors made the certain we all knew they were a Christian organization, not an “historically Christian” organization.   This seemed to be in contrast to the YWCA, which clearly stated that they were historically Christian.     

  • Rich Wilson

    The parent organization gives a great deal of leeway, so I think even within a country you’ll see a big range.

  • nakedanthropologist

    My local YMCA has bible quotes carved into the walls (hey, its Tennessee); but other than that, there’s nothing else there that could be construed as religious.  And the verses they used are the really nice ones about love and peace, so I guess it works (plus they only charge $40 a month!).

  • nakedanthropologist

    The bulletin points out that they can file for category 2 if they are providing charitable services – like the other groups to get subsidies.  The bulletin also states that religious services and/or education (like Sunday school) will not be subsidized because it is a private endeavor, and not a charitable service.  So the religious groups are being treated equally – if they’re actually helping the community they can get a subsidy, but if all the need is space for a private function (like church services) then they have to pay the standard price as other private organizations do. 

    What these churches don’t like is that they’ve lost their special status and to some extent (I think) part of their reputation.  Churches have long been associated with public welfare and charity – some churches live up to that reputation, and some do not.  I would argue that all organizations wanting a tax break or subsidy due to charity status should have to jump through the same hoops, file the same paperwork, and have their accounts open to public and government scrutiny.  That’s equality for everyone, and churches that do contribute a significant portion of their monies to charity/community building would have no problem with this.  Its the churches that are used to getting an automatic perk package with a laudatory reputation for just being a church that would be the most opposed to this type of policy.

  • Nazani14

    Call me crazy, but maybe the churches should join with everybody else in trying to find a solution to the school budget shortfall.
          Here in Virginia, those shortfalls typically happen because property and other tax revenues have fallen, and the right-wingers still try to drive down taxes and keep wages low.

  • TheBlackCat

     Yes, the opinions on the subject vary dramatically between countries.  The U.S. is on the extreme here, many other countries have no such rules.

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