Ian Bushfield, executive director of the BC Humanist Association, applauds Saanich’s decision to commission a report into the “implications” of introducing a public benefits test for religious groups. (BC Humanist Association/Submitted)

Ian Bushfield, executive director of the BC Humanist Association, applauds Saanich’s decision to commission a report into the “implications” of introducing a public benefits test for religious groups. (BC Humanist Association/Submitted)

Saanich considering public benefits test into church tax exemptions

Saanich is becoming ‘increasingly diverse and irreligious community,’ says secular organization

A provincial organization promoting secular humanism applauds Saanich’s decision to study the “implications” of introducing a public benefits test for local churches receiving tax breaks.

Ian Bushfield, executive director of the BC Humanist Association, said Saanich’s decision means the municipality is joining a growing list of municipalities taking a second look at the “giveaways” afforded to religious properties.

“Councillors spoke specifically about the importance of inclusivity to their community,” he said. “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.”

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

Council’s decision to ask staff for the report came after the organization submitted a letter in which Bushfield argued that “Saanich is an increasingly diverse and irreligious community,” citing census data that shows 48 per cent of Saanich residents reported no religious affiliation and various surveys that show three per cent of Vancouver Island residents attend weekly religious services and 72 per cent never attend church.

“Based on these statistics, the overwhelming majority of Saanich residents are subsidizing a dwindling number of church attendees,” he said.

According to a Saanich staff report, 46 Saanich churches have previously received permissive tax exemptions for the land surrounding their buildings. These permissive tax exemptions totaled $561,186 in 2018. By way of background, this figure represents about a third of the total value of tax exemptions granted in 2018, as Saanich granted non-religious institutions about $1.06 million in tax exemptions.

RELATED: Public benefits test for churches could be coming to Saanich after all

Bushfield’s applause for Saanich appears against the backdrop of reservations from staff.

“A public benefits test for places of worship would be more challenging to implement as all such exemptions are currently established on a perpetual basis,” said Valla Tinney, Saanich’s director of finance, in the report. “Any implementation would be on a go forward basis or [council] would need to consider rescinding previously approved exemptions.”

The report also notes that the current process ensures “financial stability for the exemption recipients and the District and reduces administrative burden and advertising costs” in making a case for the status quo.

RELATED: Saanich might find it ‘challenging’ to introduce test for religious tax exemptions

Councillors, however, also stressed the importance of inclusivity in their remarks in asking staff to work off a list of conditions that could eventually find their way into a public benefits test.

“For me, that [inclusivity] is the big one,” said Coun. Colin Plant. “It is not meant to attack any denomination or any organization that has certain cultural goals. But if your organization is not inclusive, I am going to have a tough time supporting you.”


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