What a Court Case about Taoist Tai Chi Might Mean for Christians in Canada



November 26, 2021

By Tabitha Ewert and Levi Minderhoud

What is religion? What are the marks of religious adherence? How far should the civil government go in recognizing, respecting, and legitimizing new and distinct religions? These are questions that a Quebec court recently had to wrestle with.

In the case of  Institute of Taoism Fung Loy Kok v. City of Montreal, an organization that offered tai chi classes had applied for an exemption from property taxes claiming that it was a religious institution. (Tai chi is a series of gentle physical exercises and stretches that has a meditative element to it.) Both the Institute and the city of Montreal brought witnesses to the court hearing to speak on the nature of tai chi and the history of the Taoist religion. While the specific question in this case – whether Taoist tai chi is a religious practice or just another form of physical exercise – might not affect Christians, the larger question pondered in the case – what is religion? – is a question that any Christian should take note of.

It is rare that a court considers the nature of religion and what it means to be religious. Justices hearing freedom of religion cases rarely spend any time on this deeper question because the bar is very low to establish an infringement of freedom of religion. Generally, all the court is looking for is whether the claimant has a sincerely held religious belief that has been interfered with. If so, an infringement of freedom of religion is recognized. The real work in these cases happens in the next stage: whether the government can justify the interference under section 1 of the Charter (you can read more about the section 1 analysis here).

This Taoist tai chi case, though, is not a Charter case. It is a tax law case. The city of Montreal waives property taxes for religious institutions if the property is not being used “with a view to income but in the immediate pursuit of its constituent objects of a religious or charitable nature.” Most other cities across Canada have similar tax-exemption policies for religious institutions. The main question in the case is clear: are the pursuits of this Institute (which mainly uses the building to practice tai chi) religious? And beyond this question, how might this case impact the state’s recognition of the Christian religion, or even the religion of secularism, in the future?

What is a religion?

The court identifies some core elements of a religion, “including:

a) a conception of the world based on the supernatural in a perspective of salvation and establishing the place of the human in the cosmos,

b) a moral code in the form of precepts and rules of conduct, and

c) worship which integrates assemblies, ceremonies and rites of transition (128).”

The court recognizes the challenge of evaluating an eastern religion in a western culture with a western idea of religion (largely based on Christian beliefs). Nevertheless, the court does identify core teachings of the Institute as “doing good deeds and serving the community, the practice of ritual and ceremonies, [and] the practice of physical activity, namely Taoist Tai chi.” The court notes that there is a “belief in the vital, eternal and timeless force that is Ch’i (Qi) and in the journey to associate with it [that] is shared by all Taoist communities regardless of their obedience.”

The communal aspect of religion

The main hurdle in this case is whether the religious character of Taoist tai chi involves a shared or collective belief. Individuals may hold religious beliefs, but for something to be a religion requires a broader community, particularly if an institution or organization, rather than an individual, is asking the state to recognize its religious nature. The reality is that many of those who practice tai chi are not adherents to the religious beliefs that the Institute holds. In fact, a Canadian census found that in Quebec only 280 people identified Taoism as their religion, but the Institute estimates the number of their members as 2,000. While this fact is eye-catching, the court says this does not defeat the case but draws an analogy to famous cathedrals, mosques, or temples around the world. Many tourists who do not adhere to the beliefs of the institutions visit these sites, yet these sites “remain places devoted to the beliefs, rituals and means of expression specific to the religions which presided over their foundation even if the number of visitors exceeds that of the members of each of the transmission communities.”

The court also considered whether the Institute was acting in bad faith, trying to claim a religious property tax exemption for their primarily non-religious activities. In other words, was this a gimmick to try to lower the expenses and increase the profits of the Institute? This is an important question for the court to consider; if religious recognition is given to organizations too easily, anyone might claim that a particular activity is religious or try to establish their own religion to gain special tax privileges. In this case, the court finds that the Institute is not operating with a view to make income but to genuinely further their religious beliefs.

In the end, the Institute won its case, and the property tax exemption is granted.

The Impact of this Case

While we have little at stake in whether this Institute is granted a religious tax exemption, the commentary about what defines a religion is quite fascinating and applicable to how Christians may engage in the public square. In a culture that increasingly treats religious beliefs as primarily individual and private, the emphasis on the communal aspect of religion is encouraging. This is an essential part of our own faith, as the Nova Scotia court in the Trinity Western University case explained well:

[Evangelical Christians’] religious faith governs every aspect of their lives. When they study law, whether at a Christian law school or elsewhere, they are studying law first as Christians. Part of their religious faith involves being in the company of other Christians, not only for the purpose of worship. They gain spiritual strength from communing in that way. They seek out opportunities to do that. Being part of institutions that are defined as Christian in character is not an insignificant part of who they are.

It is also encouraging to see the court in this case recognize how broad religious activities are. In a world that often views religion as a pietistic affair of prayer and churchgoing, it is good that the courts recognize that religion can also impact our practical day-to-day lives. If a form of exercise – tai chi – can be recognized as an overtly religious activity, other activities commanded by God – visiting widows and orphans, giving to the poor, or educating children – may also (continue to) be recognized as religious activities as well.

Tabitha Ewert is the legal council for ARPA and Levi Minderhoud is the BC Manager for ARPA

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