Big Read: Vancouver Islanders ponder the traditional practice of giving tax breaks to churches

Should public officials grant religious organizations economic advantages through tax breaks? And if so, on what basis?

This question is hardly new. Western and non-western thinkers have long argued what consitutes an appropriate relationship between the state, religious institutions, and private faith, or lack thereof.

In some corners of the world, governments have settled this question by either denying religion a place in public life (see Communist China) or organizing the state around a single religion (see the Islamic Republic of Iran, a theocracy). But it was not so long ago that even pluralistic societies like Canada openly and unquestioningly showered religious institutions with public funds.

If this issue sounds abstract, it is not. A growing of number of municipalities across British Columbia including Vancouver Island are facing questions about this issue.

The discussion revolves around the practice of communities giving churches tax breaks.

RELATED: Humanist group says Saanich taxes public purse with church exemptions

Saanich — the largest municipality on Vancouver Island — recently asked staff to review the issue of permissive tax exemptions for religious organizations, with an eye towards developing what Coun. Colin Plant called a “stress test” for such exemptions.

Plant said it might be time to review Saanich’s policy in the face of questions from the public. He specifically referenced comments from Teale Phelps Bondaroff, a candidate for Saanich council, who raised the issue before council.

“It strikes me as … strange that we are granting tax exemptions to organizations without putting them through a benefits test,” he said, pointing to the benefits test that the City of Victoria has been using for several years.

“The question that I put to you, as you explore giving [a total of] $2.4 million dollar of Saanich’s tax dollars, is have you actually tested that all the people, who are receiving this generous contribution are using their lands for non-profit activities, that furthermore, that the services have a public benefit, and that the benefits are available to all people?”

(The figure quoted above comes from Saanich’s 2017 annual report. The figure for 2019 will be established in May 2019).

Places of worship receive a statutory tax exemption under the Community Charter with councils having no say in the matter. (The statutory exemption applies to the assessed value of the building and the value of the land under the building).

Municipalities, however, may grant permissive exemptions, but only for land surrounding the building.

Overall, Saanich granted permissive tax exemptions worth over $2.47 million to a wide variety of groups, some of which include community housing organizations with religious ties such as the Baptist Housing Society of B.C.

Compared to public support for other causes and sectors of society, these permissive exemptions appear as cents on the dollar. But these calls for greater financial accountability unfold against the backdrop of greater competition for public funds and the decline of religion and religious institutions in public life.

As many aspects of Canadian law, the tradition of granting churches exemptions of various sorts dates back to English law. Following religious turmoil in the aftermath of England’s schism with Rome in the 16th century — think of it as a religious version of Brexit — authorities sought to stabilize the newly established Church of England in the 17th century by granting it all sorts of economic advantages as part of a larger agenda to advance the new state religion.

Supporters of this practice justified it on spiritual grounds, but also on socio-economic grounds, as churches fulfilled various charitable functions later assumed by the state through its welfare bureaucracy.

While churches play a reduced role in the delivery of social services, they remain places of community and sources of charity, something even critics of the current policy recognize.

“There’s definitely an argument for providing public support to groups that do good work in the community,” said Ian Bushfeld, executive director of the B.C. Humanist Association, which has been lobbying for changes. “At the same time though, we’re seeing fewer and fewer people attend church, which raises the question of the role these groups play in the broader community and whether they should continue to be subsidized by local taxpayers.”

This comment points to the larger context against which this debate unfolds.

The preamble of the Canadian constitution might state among other points that “Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God,” but Canadians themselves show little interest in filling this abstract grounding with life, based on their religious practices and attitudes.

Some 22.1 million people — or just over two-thirds (67.3 per cent) of the Canadian population — self-identified as followers of Christianity, according to the 2011 National Household Survey.

Another 7.2 per cent reported affiliation with Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist religions, up from 4.9 per cent a decade earlier, as recorded in the 2001 Census. The largest of these religions was Muslim, with just over one million individuals identifying themselves as such in 2011, representing 3.2 per cent of the nation’s total population. According to the same survey, about 1 per cent of the population (roughly 329,500 people) identified themselves as Jewish, while some 64,900 people reported affiliated with traditional Aboriginal spirituality.

Yet 7.9 million people, nearly one-quarter of the population (23.9 per cent), reported no religious affiliation, up from 16.5 per cent a decade earlier, as recorded in the 2001 Census.

In short, the number of Canadians, who actively identify themselves with an organized religion, is declining, a phenomenon also evident in other western democracies.

In Germany, for example, some 36 per cent of the population consider themselves konfessionsfrei — unaffiliated with the two major churches. This group outnumbers German Catholics (28.9 per cent), Protestants (27.1), Muslims (4.4 per cent) and others (3.6 per cent) by a sizable margin. Even residents of the United States, long known for their piety, are turning away from organized religion. In 2014, 22 per cent of them rejected any religious affiliation, up from six per cent in 1992.

This secularization of Canadian society also appears in other ways. In 1946, 67 per cent of Canadians told pollsters that they had attended a religious service in the previous seven days. In 2013, a poll by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) and Angus Reid Forum pegged the figure at 13 per cent — a figures that includes all faiths, not just Christians.

Canadians are voting with their feet, when it comes to participating in organized religion, a development with political consequences.

Long gone are days, when mainstream Canadian politicians of all political persuasions, ideologies and parties, openly courted religious leaders on the premise that they could reliably deliver guide their flocks into the voting booth, especially but not exclusively in Catholic Quebec, where cardinals and bishops openly collaborated with authoritarian figures like Maurice Duplessis, until the Quiet Revolution of the early 1960s transformed Quebec into one of, if not the most secular Canadian provinces.

The public legitimacy of religion has also taken a hit, as Canadian society, now increasingly diverse thanks to continuous immigration from non-traditional source countries, learns more about historical wrongs like the residential school system, or the global sexual abuse scandal currently rocking the Catholic church.

Church leaders, mindful of recent court rulings and shifting public sentiments, have suggested that it might be time to abandon what has been a long standing practice.

On the other hand, municipal leaders have already expressed reservations about having to decide which institutions — religious or otherwise — might be worthy of an exemption. Because after all, who wants to talk about taxes, religion and politics in public?

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