The BC Humanist Association has today asked the BC Legislature's Finance Committee to use Budget 2021 to prioritize a Just and Secular Recovery in British Columbia.
In its brief, the organization urges the committee to frame its response in terms of the humanist values of social justice, science and secularism. It further identifies two ways the budget can be used to end the privileging of religious views in the province.
- End the statutory exemptions for places of worship
- Phase out public funding of independent schools
The committee is accepting feedback from British Columbians until 5:00 PM on Friday, June 26 about what priorities should inform the provincial budget.
BCHA Executive Director Ian Bushfield presented to the Finance Committee on June 8. Listen to his comments here.
Budget 2021: A Just And Secular Recovery
Brief to the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services
June 23, 2020
Prepared by Ian Bushfield, Executive Director
It is a turbulent time for British Columbians. We face both the continued threat of further outbreaks of COVID-19 and the need to begin planning for the province’s recovery. As the Government looks toward our post-pandemic future, Humanist values of social justice, science and secularism should be at the core of our collective response.
With regard to social justice, the BC Humanist Association has endorsed the Principles for a Just Recovery (justrecoveryforall.ca) and encourages the committee to view Budget 2021 through this lens. Second, science and evidence-based policy are our best tools at our disposal to ensure the measures that are taken are effective at achieving their goals. Finally, secularism is the guarantee that people of all faiths and none will be treated equally by our governments. As the Supreme Court of Canada said in MLQ v Saguenay, “The neutrality of the public space therefore helps preserve and promote the multicultural nature of Canadian society.”
Additionally, we want to expand upon two specific policy recommendations that we spoke about before the committee. We believe these steps will help advance a more just and inclusive British Columbia.
- End the statutory exemptions for places of worship
- Phase out funding of private schools
1. End the statutory exemptions for places of worship
Municipalities across British Columbia are required to exempt “places of public worship” by the Vancouver Charter, Community Charter and Taxation (Rural Area) Act. Each Act further provides municipalities the power to exempt additional property held by religious organizations from taxation through permissive exemptions.
These statutory exemptions are a special privilege granted to religious worldviews that is not similarly extended to nonreligious and secular organizations in the province. The current statutory exemption presumes that religious worship is a public good worthy of subsidy. As an organization that is based on a worldview that all people can be moral and upstanding citizens without appeals to the divine, we strongly contest this claim.
Further, there are religious groups in this province that promote intolerance on various protected grounds including sexual orientation and gender identity. While those groups and individuals are free to hold such views, there is no requirement that the Government of BC and local governments across the province provide financial support to them through property tax exemptions.
By surveying municipalities across British Columbia, we found that 5 of the 98 who replied do not extend permissive exemptions to religious properties. Another seven municipalities told us there were no churches in their jurisdiction. Of those 86 communities that provide an exemption, we found that 28, or roughly one-third, require the organization to pass some form of a public benefits test to qualify for the exemption.
According to data we have obtained from BC Assessment, the total assessed value of all “churches and bible schools” in the province for 2020 is $7.59 billion, with $262 million of that in rural areas. Based on the non-profit mill rates, residential and commercial property owners in incorporated municipalities are shouldering a $45 million tax burden to exempt these places of worship. We also calculated that municipalities provided an $11.3 million in permissive tax exemptions for religious properties in 2018.
Given our survey results, it seems likely that if given the powers, more municipalities might extend similar public benefits tests to the place of worship itself and others may rule out exemptions entirely. This change would allow municipal councils to provide a direct property tax relief for homeowners and small business owners.
We recommend repealing the statutory exemptions for places of public worship and instead allow local councils to give permissive exemptions to any property held by a religious (or secular) non-profit and charitable organization. Such a change has already been called for by the council of the Village of Radium Hot Springs.
2. Phase out public funding of independent schools
The BC Humanist Association supports the principle of public funds for public education and calls for a phase out of public funding to faith-based and private independent schools. Our 2016 poll found 63% of British Columbians opposed public funding going to private secular schools and 70% opposed funding going to private religious schools. A 2019 poll found similar levels of public opposition.
Group 1 independent schools receive 50% of the operating grant provided to a public school in the same district and Group 2 schools receive 35%. Group 1 schools must spend less per student than a public school while Group 2 schools are not subject to the same limit. Schools in both categories charge tuition that can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars per student. A small number of other independent schools are still regulated by the government but receive no direct public subsidy.
Cost to taxpayers
Figure 1: Distribution of independent school funding by religion, 2017/18
Budget 2020 projected that $449 million would be spent on independent schools for the 2019/20 school year. Our 2018 analysis found that 74% of this funding went to religious schools – the overwhelming majority of which were Christian or Catholic (as shown in Figure 1). In fact, 62% of all independent school funding went to Christian or Catholic schools, despite only 45% of British Columbians identifying as such in the 2011 National Household Survey and an even smaller number in our survey.
As the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternative’s Alex Hemingway has pointed out, Group 2 schools are largely prep or elite schools and received $43 million for the 2018/19 school year. He has also documented other grants and tax breaks that governments give to private schools: “For example, part of private school tuition can be claimed as a federal child care tax credit, based on the rather creative idea that recess and lunch in private schools represent a child care service.” There are also property tax exemptions and charitable tax credits for donations – which includes the tuition fees.
Funding for Group 1 and 2 schools is contingent on those schools teaching the provincial curriculum. However, by reviewing the public websites of a number of Group 1 independent schools we were able to find multiple examples of schools that explicitly say that they teach creationism as science or that they would undermine a robust science education by “teaching the controversy.” While independent schools are free to supplement the curriculum, the Ministry of Education has previously insisted that schools cease instruction about creationism in science classrooms.
Additionally, vaccination records of schools across BC have shown that Christian independent schools are significantly lower than neighbouring public schools and Bishops have intervened to discourage parents from allowing their children to receive the HPV vaccine. Notably, that Bishop’s intervention ignores the students’ rights as mature minors to consent to receive vaccinations, with or without parental consent.
Individuals and religious organizations have the right to believe and to teach that in their institutions. However, there is no right to having such beliefs endorsed by and the teaching of them funded by the government. Doing so only harms our province’s long term success.
Numerous Group 1 independent schools maintain policies that effectively exclude LGBTQ2S+ students, staff and families, as well as anyone who has or assists in an abortion or assisted death. In a survey of publicly available information on schools’ websites, we found community standards, student handbooks, parent’s codes and Statements of Faith that individuals are required to sign and adhere to as a condition of attendance or employment at the school. This is spelled out through a prohibition on “sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage” or a requirement to uphold “the sanctity of life.” CBC News reported in March about a teacher whose contract was not renewed after disclosing that she was not married to the man she was living with.
These schools claim to be exempt from the BC Human Rights Code’s prohibitions on discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and family status. While we contest that argument, there’s no reason the Government needs to be funding such discrimination directly. It further runs counter to the government’s stated commitment to equality and freedom of discrimination. It also raises concerns under Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, similar to those ruled on by the Supreme Court of Canada in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University.
New data suggests private schools do not provide an academic advantage
In our recent report Pass or Fail? we compared the performance of 3076 students at the University of British Columbia based on their graduating high school. We found no statistical difference between the students fourth year sessional average of private and public school graduates.
No evidence to fear an influx
Defenders of maintaining the status quo have claimed that this funding saves the province money as these students would otherwise cost the public system double to fund them in a public school versus and independent school. However, this argument is based on a number of unproven assumptions. There’s little evidence that families will move back to the public system if independent school funding is phased out.
Families choose to send their children to independent schools for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the financial capacity. This includes being part of a religious community, specific academic or extracurricular focuses or personal experiences with the public system.
Further, looking at the nationwide landscape it’s clear that funding is not meaningfully correlated to independent school enrolment. Ontario has significantly higher independent school enrolment than British Columbia, despite providing no funding, while Alberta has lower enrolment with a greater per-student subsidy.
Simply put, there’s no evidence that reducing or eliminating funding from independent schools will lead to a large influx into the public system.
A fundamental injustice
Even if we grant the previous assumption that funding students to attend independent schools saves the public money overall, we’re still required to reduce our view of the purpose of our education system to one that only focuses on dollars and cents. Instead, our education system is the building block for our province’s future success. As set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, every child has the right to an education “on the basis of equal opportunity.” Private and faith-based education streams are antithetical to these aspirations as children are segregated by class and religion.
On faith schools in particular, we see the government as breaching its a constitutional duty to not privilege certain beliefs above others. Further, the government undermines its duty of equality by subsidizing discrimination against people on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity and family status.
The tuition charged by all private schools inevitably means that these schools are not universally accessible. Rather than the “basis of equal opportunity”, private education is restricted to those children whose parents’ have enough income or wealth. This is particularly true of so-called elite Group 2 independent schools but remains true for Group 1 schools as well.
By phasing out the funds currently spent on funding private education, that money can be used to support innovation and students with special needs within the public school system. The BCTF, in its brief, has provided a timeline for such a phase out over four years. Elite Group 2 schools would receive half their current stipend (17.5%) for 2019-20 and other schools facing a progressive rate-reduction schedule. On-reserve independent schools would be exempt from this phase out.
Finally, we direct your attention to the Institute for Public Education / British Columbia’s Budget 2021 submission, which contains additional comments on the value of defunding private education in BC.
 This analysis will be published in a forthcoming report.