A provincial organization promoting secular humanism questions why B.C. communities including Saanich continue to grant tax exemptions to properties that religious groups own.
“With the upcoming municipal elections, we think it’s a good time for residents to start talking about what they want to see in their community,” said Ian Bushfield, executive director of the B.C. Humanist Association. “Every municipality is facing tight budgets and councils have to make difficult decisions about how to best balance the needs of different sectors of the community.”
Places of worship receive a statutory tax exemption under the Community Charter with councils having no say in the matter. (The statutory exemption applies to the assessed value of the building and the value of the land under the building).
Municipalities, however, may grant permissive exemptions, but only for land surrounding the building. Saanich granted 45 churches exemptions worth $773,898, according to the 2017 annual report. The largest exemption for a church went to the Salvation Army Victoria Citadel with $109,635.
Overall, Saanich granted permissive tax exemptions worth over $2.47 million to a wide variety of groups, some of which include community housing organizations with religious ties such as the Baptist Housing Society of B.C.
Compared to the overall budget, these permissive exemptions appear as cents on the dollar.
In 2017, Saanich’s total revenues totaled $198.5 million with total expenses reaching $177.5 million. Argument can also be made that religious groups receiving tax exemptions perform valuable social tasks — many of which remain invisible to the larger public — and that ending the exemption could harm those groups by limiting their financial breathing space.
“There’s definitely an argument for providing public support to groups that do good work in the community,” said Bushfeld. “At the same time though, we’re seeing fewer and fewer people attend church, which raises the question of the role these groups play in the broader community and whether they should continue to be subsidized by local taxpayers.”
Bushfield said his organization would prefer an end to special exemptions for organizations purely on the basis that they’re religious. “So we would support the repeal of statutory exemptions for houses of worship from the Community Charter and Vancouver Charter and believe municipalities can use different approaches for property owned by religious groups,” he said. They could, for example, require them as charities and demonstrate their benefit to the community, he added.
A number of communities, for example, include Victoria require a public-benefit test before issuing permissive tax exemptions.
In 2017, churches in Victoria received $587,185 in exemptions with just over $100,000 going to the Anglican Synod Diocese of BC.
Megan Catalano, a spokesperson for the District of Saanich, confirmed that the municipality lacks a specific public benefits test. This said, council has a “use of permissive tax exemptions policy” as the Community Charter requires.
Its objective is to consider exemptions “individually on their merits” in context with Saanich’s Strategic Plan, she said. “So while there is no specific public benefits test, [councils] in following their policy, will have considered the merits when the exemptions were approved.”
The question of whether churches should receive exemptions has been simmering along for several years. Critics have not only argued along philosophical lines (like the B.C. Humanist Association), but also along commercial lines as tax-exempt groups have used their property to generate revenue.
Recent years have also seen a number of cases of religious groups losing their permissive tax exemptions because they failed in the eyes of municipal councils and courts various public benefit tests. Some religious leaders have long sensed these shifting winds, and suggested that it might be time to abandon what has been a long standing practice. On the other hand, municipal leaders might not appreciate the task of having to decide which institution — religous or otherwise — is worthy of an exemption.