Scofflaw churches being fined, or even criminally charged, for violating public health orders to prevent the spread of COVID-19 may still benefit from significant tax breaks in 2021.
The B.C. government provides churches and other religious buildings automatic statutory property tax exemptions while local municipalities may also provide additional property tax relief, known as a permissive tax exemption (PTE).
As well, the Canada Revenue Agency classifies churches as charitable organizations, which qualifies them for federal tax benefits.
The first church in B.C. fined for violating public health gathering rules was Langley’s Riverside Calvary Church. Media reports indicate the church has continued to allow gatherings after its $2,300 fine on November 29, and members intend to defend their case in court.
Riverside got a $11,997 tax break from the Township of Langley in 2019; in 2018 it got a $10,925 break.
As well, Chilliwack RCMP stated last Friday it had issued $18,400 worth of public health order violation tickets to representatives of three unnamed “places of worship.”
Police also charged the representatives of the congregations with eight counts of failure to comply with an order of a health officer.
Since those churches are unnamed (until charges are approved by the B.C. Prosecution Service), it’s not known whether they receive municipal tax breaks, although they are likely considered charitable organizations that receive statutory property tax exemptions and federal charity status.
The BC Humanist Association (BCHA) has been calling for all municipalities, and the province, to have a public benefits test for property tax exemptions. The organization argues a place of worship that breaks the law ought not to receive subsidies from the public.
PTEs “exist specifically to support work that benefits the community,” said BCHA researcher Teale Phelps Bondaroff. “So, I would argue that a place of worship that is holding meetings in open defiance of COVID-19 regulations that are in place to keep people safe and prevent the spread of the pandemic is not providing a service that benefits the community – quite the opposite.
“Continuing to provide that place of worship with a PTE is an example of the government subsidizing this irresponsible and dangerous behaviour,” said Phelps Bondaroff, who is otherwise a marine conservationist who holds a doctorate in international relations.
He said some municipalities in B.C. that provide PTEs – not all do – have policies and bylaws that include a test for benefits to the community. And where those do not exist, they should, he added.
However, much is still left to a council’s interpretation, Phelps Bondaroff said, and local bylaws and the province’s Community Charter, which set the standard for them, generally favour places of worship over non-religious non-profit groups.
In the case of the Township of Langley, council passes and reviews PTEs each year. The bylaw states tax-exempt organizations must “fulfil some basic need, improve the life of Township residents and are compatible with or are complementary to services offered by the Township.”
Phelps Bondaroff suggests breaking public health orders “would certainly not improve the life of residents.”
The PTE policy for the Township further states, “Council will only consider applications for permissive tax exemptions from charitable and not-for-profit organizations which are in good standing with their respective establishing and governing bodies.
“Permissive tax exemptions previously granted by Council are subject to an annual review to ensure that they continue to qualify for an exemption based on the most current available information at the time of the review.”
No one from Township of Langley council responded to questions posed by Glacier Media.
In response to questions on procedure, an unnamed Township of Langley spokesperson stated, “Unfortunately, this topic is very complex and evolving, as is Public Health Order enforcement, and your questions have some inherent legal aspects to them. Without further analysis, we are unable to provide answers to your most recent questions at this time.”
Glacier Media asked the Ministry of Municipal Affairs if a municipality has the right to deny a tax exemption based on an organization’s unlawful activity.
Minister Josie Osborne declined an opportunity to speak on the matter. A spokesperson recited parts of the Community Charter governing municipalities, noting it “allows local governments to set the criteria for a permissive tax exemption, which must be applied fairly and consistently across all religious organizations.”
Phelps Bondaroff said if the province allows tax breaks next year to churches that were fined and/or charged, it’s tantamount to the public paying the fine for the church.
At the moment, it is understood there is no public benefits test for provincial statutory tax exemptions (STEs).
Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth, who has ramped up COVID-19 fines this fall, did not provide a direct answer when questioned on such a scenario last Thursday.
“What matters to me is the enforcement of public health orders,” he said. “The vast majority of religious institutions have been abiding by these rules.”
University of British Columbia Prof. Max Cameron, who teaches ethics and politics, suggests politicians and the public first ask what those tax exemptions are trying to accomplish.
“And is it consistent with the rationale for those exemptions to provide them to churches that are not upholding public health orders?” asks Cameron.
Cameron also asks if removing tax status would even bring the churches into compliance, which he says is the primary goal.
Cameron also questions if there could be double jeopardy at play in removing tax status for actions that have already been fined.
“So, what’s the best way of encouraging them not to gather in person and would withholding tax exempt status actually accomplish that end or would it simply inflict more harm or pain on them, which is not the goal,” said Cameron.
Phelps Bondaroff noted that churches must comply with CRA standards, including abiding by the law.
“Activities that are illegal in Canada or contrary to Canadian public policy are prohibited,” the CRA notes.
The CRA states it has four scaled sanctions at its discretion if a charity is non-compliant: education, compliance agreement, financial penalty and revocation of charity status.
The BCHA calculated local governments in B.C. handed out $12.2 million permissive tax exemptions to places of worship in 2019. The association estimates the provincial statutory tax exemptions totalled $45.9 million.