Churches violating COVID-19 rules should lose tax grant, says Township of Langley councillor

·3 min read

Churches in the Township of Langley could lose property tax grants after being fined for breaking COVID-19 rules if a local councillor succeeds with a motion presented to council this week.

"I'm angry that I'm paying extra taxes to subsidize these organizations," said Township of Langley Coun. Kim Richter.

She introduced a motion at Monday's council meeting calling for churches or other places of worship which don't obey COVID-19 rules to lose their eligibility for a grant in 2022.

Township staff will look at the legal language of the motion and council will discuss the motion again at a meeting on Jan. 21.

Richter, a business management instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, said taxpayers make up the difference when places of worship get a break on their property taxes.

"I don't think it's fair that an organization that is getting subsidized by public monies should be allowed to put the public at risk through their willful behaviours and actions in a period of time when we are in a global pandemic and under provincial emergency rules," said Richter.

Taxes could be recouped

The seven-term councillor also wants changes to Township rules so that the municipality can repeal and or recoup property tax exemptions granted in 2020 and 2021 from any organizations that have been fined.

She said the Riverside Calvary Church in the Township of Langley has been getting the exemption since 2014. However, the church has been fined $4,600 recently for violating COVID-19 rules.

"The organization in question that's been fined twice now is estimated to receive a 2021 tax exemption of $13,700," pointed out Richter.

Richter hopes other communities will consider taking similar action.

According to the B.C. government's website, places of worship are automatically eligible for property tax exemptions through the provincial government. Local governments have the authority to exempt eligible properties from other property taxation for a specified period of time.

Marty Moore, a barrister and solicitor with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms in Calgary, has been reviewing the public health orders in B.C. In a written statement to CBC News, he said the Township of Langley council's motion violates faith communities' charter right of religious freedom.

Church leaders differ on revoking tax exemptions

Church leaders across the province differ on whether other municipalities should take away property tax exemptions from places of worship that don't follow the public health orders.

Tim Zotzman, pastor of The Voice of Pentecost Church in Williams Lake, which has been closed since November, says churches that have been fined shouldn't receive additional penalties.

"[Repealing property tax exemptions] is discrimination against specifically the church," Zotsman told Michelle Eliot, host of CBC's BC Today. "COVID outbreaks aren't really restricted simply to churches."

Isabelle Raghem/CBC
Isabelle Raghem/CBC

But Beth Hayward, lead minister of Vancouver's Canadian Memorial United Church, welcomes municipalities' withdrawal of tax breaks for non-compliant churches.

"If there is authority in any level of government to ensure that everybody follows the rules and faces the appropriate repercussions if they don't, I'm supportive of that," Hayward said.

Brad Sumner, lead pastor of Surrey's Jericho Ridge Community Church near Langley, says he worries the minority of outspoken voices against public health orders within the religious community may taint all churches in a bad light in the future.

"There's no shortage of Christians behaving badly through history or in [the] contemporary world, but when that becomes the dominant narrative that everyone is talking about all the time, that becomes challenging for those who are in the … silent majority [who follow public health orders]," Sumner said.

Isabelle Raghem/CBC
Isabelle Raghem/CBC