Saanich looks at public benefits tests for churches

Following a letter from the BC Humanist Association, councillors in the District of Saanich voted unanimously Monday night to move toward applying a public benefits test before granting property tax exemptions to religious groups in the municipality.

The vote followed a staff report reviewing options for the District. It notes that 46 churches receive permissive tax exemptions, meaning the city did not collect $561,186 in revenue is 2018.

District staff have now been directed to report back on the implications of adopting a public benefits test for non-profit organizations and church exemptions.

Ian Bushfield, Executive Director, BC Humanist Association

Saanich is the latest in a growing list of municipalities across BC that are taking a second look at the giveaways afforded to religious properties. Councillors spoke specifically about the importance of inclusivity to their community. The test they develop could therefore be a step to ending a government subsidy that goes to those organizations that preach against the dignity and human rights of other Saanich residents.

The report describes a public benefits test as "criteria upon which applications [for permissive tax exemptions] would be evaluated." It lists examples of such criteria as:

  • Requiring that services and activities be equally available to all residents of the District
  • Registration of a covenant restricting use of the property
  • An agreement committing the organization to continue a specific service/program
  • An agreement committing the organization to have field/facilities open for public use for specific times or a total amount of time
  • An agreement committing the organization to offer the use of the field/facility to certain groups free of charge or at reduced rates
  • Exemptions based on the principal use of the property, not on the charitable service of the organization as a whole
  • Exemptions can be granted in whole or in part of the taxable assessed value of land, improvements, or both. Exemption categories (sport, cultural, community service, agricultural, etc ... ) can be established with a corresponding maximum exemption amount (50%, 75%, 100%, etc ... ) applied to each category.

City and town councils in BC are able to grant permissive tax exemptions to certain organizations. Provincial law requires that houses of worship are exempt from property taxes but it's up to individual councils whether to grant additional tax exemptions.

A study by the BC Humanist Association found that about one in three BC municipalities require religious groups pass a public benefits test before granting a permissive tax exemption.

Read our letter to the District of Saanich Council

Watch council's debate

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