Police, fire, parks, libraries and fixing potholes are all funded by the property taxes that cities and towns across British Columbia collect. But not all properties are treated equally.
The authority to collect property taxes is given to cities by the Government of British Columbia via the Vancouver Charter, the Community Charter and the Taxation (Rural Area) Act. These apply to the City of Vancouver, other incorporated municipalities and all other lands, respectively. These acts require that certain kinds of property be exempted from property taxes, called statutory exemptions. They also provide city councils with the ability to exempt additional types of properties, called permissive exemptions.
Statutory exemptions for Places of Worship
Under each Act, places of “public worship” receive a statutory exemption.
Section 396(1)(c) of the Vancouver Charter says exempts “Real property…”
(iv) of which a religious organization, either directly or through trustees therefor, is the registered owner, or owner under agreement, and which is set apart and in use for the public worship of God; provided, however, that the exemption by this clause conferred shall not be lost by reason of the use of the church property for any of the purposes hereinafter set out if it is so provided by by-law:—
The use of the church property by a government, notwithstanding that a fee is paid for such use:
The use of the church property for the care or instruction of children under school age by a charitable or non-profit organization:
The use of the church property for the purpose of teaching organ or choral music, notwithstanding that a fee is charged therefor:
The use of the church property for the holding of organ recitals, notwithstanding that the recitalist receives a fee therefor:
Section 229(1)(h) of the Community Charter exempts
(h) a building set apart for public worship, and the land on which the building stands, if title to the land is registered in the name of
(i) the religious organization using the building,
(ii) trustees for the use of that organization, or
(iii) a religious organization granting a lease of the building and land to be used solely for public worship;
Section 15(1) of the Taxation (Rural Area) Act says that “every place of public worship” is exempt from property taxation.
A "place of public worship" would seem to have a fairly clear meaning. Nevertheless, there have been a few court battles when, for example a Christian summer camp wanted the exemption. The BC Supreme Court however ruled against the camp in 2006. In essence, the Court defined the phrase as requiring a defined area that is used for theistic worship and it must be regularly open to the public. As spaces at the camp were often used for other purposes and not publicly accessible, the court upheld the decision to tax the camp.
Municipalities are also granted the authority to exempt other properties owned by not-for-profit corporations or local authorities. For example, a city council may decide to exempt the property held by a charity that provides services for the poor. This often serves as a way for the council to subsidize the services being provided by local charities.
While places of “public worship” are statutorily exempt, other property owned by a religious organization may be subject to property taxes unless the organization is granted a permissive exemption. Such property might include parking lots, playgrounds, offices or even empty lots that the organization may develop in the future.
Over the past couple months, a few volunteers have helped the BCHA investigate the permissive exemptions policies of dozens of municipalities across BC and we'll be releasing those results over the coming weeks. First, we'll look at why permissive exemptions are worthy of some attention, then we'll look at a number of case studies across the province to show how different councils have approached the question.
BC Assessment's guidance on "Places of Public Worship Exemption and Classification" goes into great detail on the process cities should undertake to determine whether a property should be considered a place of public worship and what exemptions it must or could therefore qualify for.