Saanich endorses COVID-19 denial through permissive tax exemption

Without benefits tests for permissive tax exemptions (PTE), municipalities risk funding organizations that only provide services to their members, run commercial operations, exclude and discriminate against people or flout the law. This is exactly what the District of Saanich did at its meeting on Monday, October 25th when this municipal council unanimously voted to renew a PTE to a prosperity gospel church known for equating child disobedience to witchcraft, for preaching homophobia, endorsing and engaging in so-called ‘conversion therapy,’ and for outspoken COVID-19 denial and anti-vaccine rhetoric.

This example should serve as motivation for municipalities across BC to adopt a rigorous benefits test, lest they find themselves in the position of inadvertently supporting the spread of hate and health misinformation through the allocation of tax exemptions.

About Tax Exemptions

The BCHA has been working on the issue of tax exemptions for places of worship for several years. Earlier this year, we published the report “A Public Good? Property tax exemptions for places of worship in British Columbia In BC” and our research team is currently drafting a number of reports exploring different tax exemptions disbursed in BC.

In the province, places of worship may receive exemptions from municipal property taxation in two forms: statutory and permissive tax exemptions. Statutory tax exemptions (STEs) are automatically granted to places of worship by provincial statute, and apply to buildings set apart for public worship and the land upon which that building stands. With respect to PTEs, municipalities are allotted the choice as to whether or not to apply an exemption, can set the size of the exemption (as a proportion to the municipal budget for example), and are permitted to establish criteria around the allocation of these exemptions. PTEs can be applied to land surrounding the place of worship, improvements to that land (such as parking lots or playgrounds), and additional halls or other similar structures. 

The BCHA has called for STEs for places of worship to be abolished. Because they are automatically granted, these exemptions strip municipalities of the freedom to allocate tax dollars in a way that maximizes benefits to the community as a whole. The automatic granting of STEs to places of worship assumes that recipients provide public benefits, but this is not always the case and cannot be verified without some kind of evaluative mechanism, like a benefits test. 

With respect to PTEs, the BCHA has advocated that municipalities adopt a benefits test. Without such a test, a municipality could find itself in the position of granting a PTE to a private club, a commercial business, a group that actively discriminates against people in violation of the Human Rights Code, and/or a group that knowingly violates the law. 

This is arguably what happened when Saanich adopted ‘Tax Exemption Real Property Bylaw, 2021, No. 9734’ on October 25, 2021. This bylaw delineated which organizations in the District would receive PTEs for 2022 and 2023, which included renewing the generous PTE to the Winners Chapel International Victoria. This organization first received a PTE from the District worth $63,669 in 2020 (see Saanich Annual Report, 2020, p.94). The only place of worship the District granted a larger exemption to that year was the Salvation Army Victoria Citadel, who received a grant of $102,076. The Salvation Army has long been criticized for homophobic and transphobic attitudes.

About Winners Chapel International

Winners Chapel International Victoria is a prosperity gospel church and part of a global network of Winners Chapel International (WCI), also known as ‘Living Faith Church Worldwide.’ They claim to have congregations in 65 countries.

Winners Chapel Victoria, describes itself as “a Church where Winning in life is taught as a lifestyle and experienced by its vibrant membership. We have been raised as an army by God unto Himself, to have dominion on every affair of life and do exploits on the earth.”

The WCI was established in 1983 by Bishop David Oyedepo, after he received a ‘visionary encounter.’ Oyedepo has since become a multi-millionaire and his personal wealth is estimated at over US$150 million. The beliefs and mandate of the WCI are centered around the personal teachings and experiences of Oyedepo, and he is the central figure in the church. As the Winners Chapel Victoria website explains, “the birth of this church was divinely orchestrated through various encounters experienced by the Presiding Bishop, Dr. David Oyedepo.”

Bishop Oyedepo and his church are known for equating child disobedience to witchcraft, for preaching homophobia, for endorsing and engaging in so-called ‘conversion therapy,’ and more recently, for outspoken COVID-19 denial and anti-vaccine rhetoric.

Bishop Oyedepo has made some alarming and dangerous pronouncements concerning the global COVID-19 pandemic. 

In a May 9th 2021 service, Bishop Oyedepo called COVID-19 vaccines “a deadly thing”, denied the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic (see at 2:01.00 for example), and claimed to have a cure for the virus. A video of this service and sermon was shared on the Winners Chapel International Victoria Facebook page. Spreading this kind of misinformation during a global pandemic is incredibly irresponsible and dangerous.

The Church and its leaders have made pronouncements against homosexuality, and claim to offer a ‘cure’ for homosexuality. A 2018 ITV investigation documented examples of UK branches of this church engaging in ‘conversion therapy.’ In an article, ITV explained that “Winners' Chapel openly claims that its mission is ‘liberating men everywhere from every oppression of the devil,’ and at its branch in Dartford, that includes homosexuality.” The pastor at this church compared the acceptance of homosexuality as being akin to Nazi brainwashing.

In 2011, Oyedepo was captured on video slapping a young girl during one of his ministry events in Nigeria. He accused the teenager of being a witch. A Guardian article discussing the incident quoted the WCI website liking disobedience to witchcraft. This kind of language and these accusations are not simple hyperbolic rhetoric, but can have deadly consequences. In Nigeria, there has been a horrifying string of reports of abuse, abandonment, and even murder of young people and elderly women accused of witchcraft or of being witches (see source 1; source 2; source 3; source 4; source 5).

Permissive Tax Exemptions in Saanich

Last year, Saanich provided $2,615,770 in permissive tax exemptions (see Annual Report, 2020, p.94). These exemptions are broken down into the following categories:

  • Places to places of worship: $904,527
  • Schools: $11,200
  • Sport: $250,803
  • Community activity centres: $202,438
  • Cultural organizations: $68,084
  • Agricultural organizations:$182,969
  • Community service organizations: $552,230
  • Community housing organizations: $443,323
  • Natural area preservation: $196.

The property in question, 3400 Tillicum Rd., had a gross assessment of $7,739,000 in 2021. The church received a PTE from Saanich valued at $63,669 in 2020 (see 2020 Annual Report, p.94). While municipal taxes on the church building itself, and the land it sits on, are exempted under a STE, Saanich has granted a PTE for the remaining land, which amounts to Saanich residents and businesses subsidizing this church and its operations with tens of thousands of tax dollars.

According to Winners Chapel International Victoria’s charitable tax returns, the church reported almost $100,000 in net profit in 2020, 2019 and 2018. The organization reported nearly $335,000 in net assets (with no liabilities) for 2020, over $250,000 of which was cash. This suggests that paying their fair share of municipal taxes would not be a financial strain on the organization.

Benefits Test for PTEs Overdue

I first raised the need for a benefits test for PTEs to Saanich Council as early as 2018, as a concerned resident. Three years ago, the BCHA wrote to Saanich Council asking them to adopt a benefits test for PTE recipients (May 12, 2019). This letter was added as input into Council’s decision regarding the receipt of an April 26, 2019 report from staff, entitled “Permissive Tax Exemption Process Review.” In this report, a number of options for improving the way Saanich disburses permissive tax exemptions were explored. At its May 13, 2019 meeting, Saanich Council approved the following motion:

That Council provide direction to staff on desired changes to the permissive exemption policy and processes and request a report back on implications to staff resources and Council processes with respect to a public benefits test for non-profit organizations and/or a public benefits test for church exemptions considering the conditions as outlined in number two in the report of the Director of Finance dated April 26, 2019 as follows:

  • 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 the 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.

The development of a PTE policy was listed among planned initiatives in Saanish’s 2020 Annual Report (p.41); however, despite Council’s 2019 motion and plans, no such review or test has come before Council to date. As it stands, Saanich does not subject applicants for PTEs to a benefits test. 

The BCHA wrote to the District about STEs in advance of the 2020 UBCM Conference. And I corresponded with one Councillor and supplied them with a copy of a sample benefits test that we’ve been developing.

Unfortunately, Saanich has yet to adopt a benefits test for permissive tax exemptions. Instead, it unanimously adopted this latest bylaw (Tax Exemption Real Property Bylaw, 2021, No. 9734), which grants Winners Chapel International Victoria a PTE for a further two years. Given the practices of this organization, it’s hard to see how it would pass any reasonable benefits test.

The need for a benefits test for PTEs has never been more apparent.

Call to Action

While Saanich has decided that it is comfortable with funding organizations that discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community, decry vaccines and deny the existence of COVID, other BC municipalities need not do the same. We are encouraging everyone in BC who supports the separation of religion and government to ask their local government to adopt benefits tests before allocating PTEs to places of worship. Simply write to your mayor and council and ask what kinds of application processes would-be PTE recipients are subjected to prior to receiving tax dollars.


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