The upcoming motion Permissive Exemptions from Property Taxation before Township council on Jan. 25 would revoke the property tax exemption for churches and other houses of worship (hereafter, “churches”) that have not complied with the most recent Provincial Health Orders.
I attend a church in Langley, and our church is complying with the Provincial Health Orders and we are not meeting in contravention of the orders. However, I urge the council not to take this punitive action against our community’s churches for the following reasons:
The actual risk: To my knowledge, local church health safety practices include limiting the number of people attending, strict social distancing, diligent records for contact tracing, and sanitization of the facilities before and after. These practices meet and possibly exceed the level of care currently practiced in other public entities, including restaurants, pubs, and shopping malls. The publicly available data as of late December shows that there have been a total of only two exposures or outbreaks at houses of worship in B.C., compared to 34 at bars and nightclubs, seven at restaurants, and four at retail establishments. Clearly the risk of exposure in worshipping communities has been minor compared with other activities allowed to continue.
Community benefits: Churches and houses of worship benefit our communities in important spiritual, social, and communal ways. In recognition of their important work we grant them an exemption from property tax responsibility. Churches that feel conscience-bound to continue to provide these benefits to needy people – in the midst of a pandemic – should not be financially punished for doing so.
Freedom of conscience: The churches that choose to meet do so out of religious conviction. Just as we ought to respect a Sikh’s right to wear head-covering mandated by their religion, so should we respect convictions of those churches who are conscience-bound to continue meeting.
Constitutional rights: Several churches across British Columbia are challenging whether these restrictions on in-person worship services are legitimate infringements on their freedom of religion and of assembly. This legal question is not yet settled, and some legal experts have expressed doubts on the constitutionality of these restrictions.
If, as requested in the notice of motion, this measure includes the effective revocation of 2020 (last year’s) property tax exemptions, this would effectively penalize past actions with new regulations. Retroactive laws are fundamentally wrong.
There are already substantial fines in place for the contravention of health orders. Are other penalties truly necessary? And, given the existing fines, do we want to further penalize and hinder the spiritual and social work of these churches in our communities?
Ken Ewert, Fort Langley
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