Starting a conversation about permissive exemptions for churches

With an understanding of what a permissive exemption is, it's worth discussing some of the issues that are raised by municipalities granting these exemptions to religious organizations.

Provincial and municipal governments grant exemptions from property taxes as a way to recognize and promote the public benefit of certain institutions. As far back as the Magna Carta, the advancement of religion has been seen as a good in and of itself. This has led to religious properties being granted the statutory exemptions discussed above.

However, as British Columbia becomes increasingly secular, it’s worth questioning this basic assumption. As of 2016, only 27% of British Columbians said they practice a religion or faith and only 11% attend religious services weekly. Despite the emptier pews, churches across BC are still granted automatic exemptions from property taxes.

Together with the decline in religious participation in BC is a broader secularization of civil society. Where once the majority of social services were provided by faith-based organizations, today a plethora of government and non-government organizations have stepped up to support those in need. While many religious charities continue contribute greatly to their local community, this broader shift has decoupled the societal benefit from the religious nature of these charities. We are now able to talk about the public benefit that a charity offers in terms of the tangible effect it has on the lives of humans rather than the assuming a metaphysical benefit.

The Supreme Court of Canada has said that the state has a duty of religious neutrality, meaning it must neither endorse nor prohibit any belief or non-belief. By exempting properties purely because they are used for religious purposes or owned by religious organizations, while not offering a similar automatic advantage to organizations representing secular belief systems (like Humanism), the state has arguably violated this duty by endorsing the civic participation of theists above nontheists.

At the provincial level, the blanket exemption for places of “public worship” shows preferential treatment of not only belief over nonbelief but of Western, organized religious worldviews over other approaches.

The decision by many municipalities to grant permissive exemptions to other properties held by religious organizations cannot be justified with the same rationale even assuming that a public benefit is derived from public worship. One must go further and assume that it’s better for a religious organization to own a piece of property than for it to be in another person's hands. While there may be cases where this is true, for example where a church group operates social housing, a shelter or a soup kitchen, it seems dubious to imply it’s universally true.

In the midst of the present housing crisis, this point bears some consideration. While there are many aspects to solving the crisis, most economists agree that increasing the supply of affordable housing is a must. Given their history in many communities, churches often maintain prime real estate in the downtown core of these cities. Municipalities and citizens may have to grapple with the question of whether it continues to make sense to subsidize properties being used for a dwindling number of religious congregants when the same land could be used for affordable housing.

Some churches and the Government of BC have arguably recognized this dilemma. Through its Housing Hub initiative and other programs, the Government has announced its intention to work with various faith groups to develop additional affordable housing. In downtown Vancouver a number of churches are proposing fully or partially non-market developments. These partnerships raise additional concerns for secularists and human rights advocates who worry about whether these facilities will be inclusive of people of all faiths and none and not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Should a city try to question the permissive exemption of a religious organization, it will almost inevitably be followed by claims of religious discrimination. This is what happened in 2006 in Coquitlam when the city denied an exemption to the local Jehovah's Witness congregation that had purchased a parcel of land to construct a new Kingdom Hall. Ultimately, the Supreme Court of BC sided with the city. Since the Hall had not been completed, the land did not include a place of public worship and it was therefore up to the City Council to grant (or not) a permissive exemption for the property. The court did find that the City breached their duty of procedural fairness to the congregation but upheld the City’s jurisdiction to not grant the exemption.

The Court wrote that “the legislature has chosen to treat the land surrounding the exempt building in a different fashion” than the house worship (and land upon which it stands). The justice found no infringement on the freedom of religion of the congregation as “the burden is indirect and, in my view, not substantial” nor was the City’s decision an infringement on their right to equality as the bylaws “do not draw a formal distinction between the Congregation and others on the basis of personal characteristics.”

In the background of this entire discussion is the fact that when the first European explorers came to the land that would become British Columbia, they were often accompanied by Christian missionaries. These missionaries set to building the province’s first Christian churches, often on land granted by the Crown or bought from Canadian Pacific Railway (who acquired it from the Crown) without consent of local indigenous nations. Many of these churches played an active role in Canada’s residential schools, which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report calls part of an attempted “cultural genocide.” While three of the four major churches involved have apologized for that role, these churches continue to exist on unceded territory.

Finally, we're well aware that we are starting this discussion in the midst of British Columbia's municipal elections happening on October 20. We hope that the information we provide can help inform debates in communities from Anmore to Valemount.

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