Municipal Case Study: British Columbia and Permissive Tax Exemptions

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Fort Langley, British Columbia[1], Canada, is home or a next door neighbour to the largest fundamentalist Christian university in the country: Trinity Western University. A self-identified Evangelical Christian university with a well-known Community Covenant and Statement of Faith, and failed law school decisively labelled as “exclusionary” with the potential for “risk of significant harm to LGBTQ people” (quoting Case Summary of Law Society of British Columbia v. Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32.).

Trinity Western University v Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, Trinity Western University v The Law Society of Upper Canada (2015), and Trinity Western University v Law Society of British Columbia (2015), led to the Supreme Court of Canada case (2017-18).

Trinity Western University lost the case 7-2. In the official documentation, one can find quotations relevant to the known interpretations external to Trinity Western University of the Community Covenant.

For example, “Case Summary of Law Society of British Columbia v. Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32.“ stated:

The refusal to approve the proposed law school means that members of the TWU religious community are not free to impose those religious beliefs on fellow law students, since they have an inequitable impact and can cause significant harm. The LSBC chose an interpretation of the public interest in the administration of justice which mandates access to law schools based on merit and diversity, not exclusionary religious practices. The refusal to approve TWU’s proposed law school prevents concrete, not abstract, harms to LGBTQ people and to the public in general. The LSBC’s decision ensures that equal access to the legal profession is not undermined and prevents the risk of significant harm to LGBTQ people who feel they have no choice but to attend TWU’s proposed law school. It also maintains public confidence in the legal profession, which could be undermined by the LSBC’s decision to approve a law school that forces LGBTQ people to deny who they are for three years to receive a legal education.

The “concrete” and not merely abstract harm became the focus there. All this coming from the locale of the Township of Langley. This happened for years. Some of these formulations of Christian theology and morality come to the public spotlight more than others.

Yet, surprisingly, its demographics, even by 2011 Metro Vancouver data, contained 43,680 individuals without a formal religious affiliation out of 103,145 citizens in the Township of Langley, so 42.3% as of 2011 without a formal religious affiliation.

More than 2 out of every 5 don’t adhere to any formal religious system. If the municipal data reflects national trends since 2011, then the proportion should be higher than 42.3%. Which, to me, was surprising, probably to many others, indeed, the 2018 inaugural Council session followed relatively normal procedure with a prayer by Pastor Derrick Hamre of Christian Life Assembly[1], which is a part of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (PAOC).

One would gather a different sense of the demographics with prayers opening inaugural Council meetings if new to it. Obviously, if examining the prayer with reference to “Heavenly Father,” “pray,” “prayer,” “blessing,” “bless, “Christ,” and “amen,” this means, not only a prayer but, a particular religion’s prayer, a Christian prayer.

As per the Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City), 2015, SCC 16 [2015] 2 S.C.R. 3 decision, from “2015,” was violated, after personally sending a letter of concern[2] and receiving a prompt response from a municipal representative, I have been earlier informed inaugural prayers are no longer going to take place at Council meetings in the Township of Langley; and the same with other prayers at Council meetings.

It would appear councils have been making the changes since 2015 to be in accordance with the Supreme Court of Canada. They have been slow to realize this Supreme Court of Canada decision. This means a compliance with the law. When mentioning the “Council,” this references the current Council of the Township of Langley, which is comprised of Mayor Jack Froese, Councillor Petrina Arnason, Councillor David Davis, Councillor Steve Ferguson, Councillor Margaret Kunst, Councillor Bob Long, Councillor Kim Richter, Councillor Blair Whitmarsh, and Councillor Eric Woodward.

Some of my previous coverage in the Township of Langley, British Columbia, and Canada, covered a number of the problematic contents of the municipality, the province, and the society, including homeopathy, naturopathy, astrologers, mediums, psychics, William Branham’s “The Message” theology (particularly Cloverdale Bibleway), and (most often Christian) creationism[3].

In the moment of COVID-19, these become further layered concerns because of the culture of the denial of scientific skepticism or scientific rationalism. In this sense, the idea of science as something to inform policy decision-making and political maneuvers, rather than faith, is important.

Indeed, as one may see with the news coverage throughout the United States, there’s a sense of denial of science and affirmation of the power and glory of their God to protect them. Many pastors made these open claims.

Latin America’s evangelical churches hard hit by pandemic,” by the Associated Press, reported in Bolivia “some 100 evangelical pastors have died,” in Nicaragua (according to the Nicaraguan Evangelical Alliance) “at least 44 pastors have died since March,” and so it goes; these are replicated stories elsewhere.

Pastors reject the sound medical and scientific public health recommendations, even demands of the government led by experts. They put their congregations, or “flock,” and themselves at risk. Following this, many die, sadly and unfortunately, but predictably due to theological assertions -wrongheadedness.

Similarly, when this happens in the local context, this becomes important. Riverside Calvary Chapel in Walnut Grove, British Columbia, has been making some of the news, lately, which, so happens, exists in the Township of Langley. The same Langley under the aegis of the aforementioned councillors and mayor.

The male pastoral leadership (by title of “pastor” or “elder,” youth, children, and administration left to the women[4]) comes from Elder Nathan Sawatzky, Elder Brent Muxlow, Elder Pete Jansen, Lead Pastor Brent Smith, Assistant Pastor Randy Dyck, Assistant Pastor Rob Lee, and Youth Pastor Cole Smith.

Dan Ferguson and Matthew Claxton, separately, reported on Riverside Calvary Chapel in “VIDEO: Langley church defies provincial ban on in-person services for a second time,” “Business owner under siege for reporting Langley church pleased pastor has spoken out,” “Langley church fined for holding in-person Sunday service,” “Police warned Langley church will face more fines for in-person worship: court documents,” “Updated: Langley church fined for holding in-person Sunday service,” and “Langley Township could strip tax break from churches defying COVID health orders.”

Ferguson, in “VIDEO: Langley church defies provincial ban on in-person services for a second time,” discussed how the Riverside Calvary Chapel was fined $2,300 (CAD) for the defiance of a provincial ban on public services, which was ordered by the provincial health officer.

Cpl. Holly Largy found an in-person service in-progress. This raises a number of questions. How many other quiet breaking of rules happen in the Township of Langley, the “Bible Belt,” based on religious commitments? Everyone else follows the law.

Thus, everyone collectively pays for tax exemptions of some buildings over others. Why are those harming the commonwealth with breaking public health orders receiving tax breaks where others may not get the tax breaks, exemptions, while following the same rules of everyone else?

Do these amount to particular benefits for some religious groups and not for others with the presumptive status of benefit to the general public for tax exempt status of some churches explicitly rejecting the common good via holding services in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic?

Largy noted the option to disperse was given to the congregants and leadership. This was declined; a fine was issued.

Lead Pastor Brent Smith stated, “We have a team of lawyers that are preparing a statement and will be representing us on these matters… We certainly are not looking for a fight, we just believe there has been many inconsistencies with what is essential and we simply desire to worship our Lord in a safe and Biblical way.”

Two other churches in Chilliwack rejected the public health officials’ orders, the Chilliwack Free Reformed Church and Free Grace Baptist Church. They claim the public health order of the provincial health officer violated their Charter rights.

Later, on December 6, 2020, the same Riverside Calvary Chapel defied the provincial health officer’s orders by holding another in-person meeting. Which, to secular members of the public, generally, does not surprise, in this country, Christianity, as believed and held by Christians, has been and continues to be a political tool.

Something upon which to flaunt their being exceptions to the rules; while, at the same time, everyone else must follow them. When they get called on it, they play the victim. This is the narrative. This is the story for centuries.

How many times has the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church had the opportunity to apologize and make amends for the Residential School System in this country? There are tons of cases like this.

Kari Simpson, the Executive Director of Culture Guard (Langley, British Columbia, Canada), spoke on the issue. Culture Guard is known for opposition to sexual orientation and gender identity resources in schools and wanting a “Canadian Judeo-Christian Flag” raised at Langley City hall.

Simpson declared, in the video, in “VIDEO: Langley church defies provincial ban on in-person services for a second time,” that the State was making this religious issue political.

Whereas, in fact, the same rules for everyone applied and then based on religious reasoning and grounds the individual members and leaders of Riverside Calvary Chapel defied the public health orders putting the public at health risk.

Which is to state, Kari Simpson is not only wrongheaded, but backwards in the reasoning. The individual church members functioning in a tax exempt building defied health orders for the benefit of the public, while taking break on public dime (including secular community members, who are plentiful), and then claimed the violators were the victims.

Imagine a thief coming to Riverside Calvary Chapel and stealing objects belonging to the church, this makes the news. Everyone’s up in arms. The police fine the thief after apprehending them and returning the stolen church goods.

The church members and leaders, e.g., Lead Pastor Brent Smith, claims this is against the law, to steal public property from the church. The thief then claims, “Why are you and the State making this political?” You see the issue.

Simpson, in essence, is explicitly claiming special rights and exceptions to rules obeyed by everyone else for Protestant Evangelical Christians at Riverside Calvary Chapel. Lead Pastor Brent Smith, and other pastoral leaders, are implicitly claiming special rights and exceptions by their actions once to the tune of $2,300 (CAD) and a second time.

That’s the point. Some don’t care to function by the same rules and regulations, and laws, as everyone else, because they view themselves as above it, which is the attitude and stance of common, petty criminals.

However, it comes under the guise of religion in the Township of Langley and, therefore, acquires a certain social immunity from common criticism as one would apply in the case of the thief.

Interestingly enough, Simpson claimed, “[Provincial health officer] Bonnie Henry is going to have to justify her position on this. I think she’s going to have real trouble.” The public justification is public health and safety, which most of the public understands, respects, and shows mutual concern and respect through following the rules here. I’ll give Simpson the benefit of the doubt; she’s lying and playing to her base rather than ignorant and lying.

Again, to Simpson, it’s quite the opposite. Simpson will “have to justify her position on this” because “I think she’s going to have real trouble” with justifying it. Why? Because she can’t justify it on the bases of the same standards as everyone else in law, in policy, in health guidelines and rules for the common good.

As implicit here, the issue is fundamentalist religious, often Christian, sentiments, in this municipality; justifications for the unjustifiable with appeals to privileged status for one’s own preferred religion and sect within the preferential religion, which, by definition, becomes unequal in status on a stand of greater stature.

Important to note, both Chilliwack pastors, James Butler (Free Grace Baptist) and John Koopman, are quoted as citing God and Christian theology as the reason for violating the public health order.

Butler stated, “The identification of what is and what is not an ‘essential service’ is certainly open for interpretation, but in short, we believe that churches are essential, and that Christians are commanded by God to attend public worship.”

Koopman said, “Our convictions compel us to worship our God in the public gathering of his people and we must act in accordance with our conscience.”

What if one were to make an appeal to a particular political ideology as a reason for statements around “The identification of what is and what is not an ‘essential service’ is certainly open for interpretation”?

You see the issues and the concerns here. In “Police warned Langley church will face more fines for in-person worship: court documents,” Ferguson stated, “According to a petition filed on Jan. 7 in the Vancouver B.C. Supreme Court registry on behalf of Riverside Calvary and several other parties in B.C., two bylaw officers and six RCMP officers arrived at the church in the 9600 block of 201st Street to issue the first ticket for $2,300 on Sunday, Nov. 29.”

As of mid-January, 19 churches in the Fraser Valley have been defying the public health order. This is the relatively common, non-majority attitude if happening sufficiently here.

Although, Pastor Smith of Riverside Calvary Chapel has done some positive contributions with not condoning some online attacks against a business owner, Dena Fyfe. Nonetheless, the main issues stay here.

The basic issue remains a culture as a threat to public health with explicit reasoning given in religious interpretations stipulated in public by pastors. It’s not a mystery; it’s, also, probably appalling to other religious people who are community leaders who adhere to guidelines, as with Cllr. Blair Whitmarsh (see below).

The single most important article reported, so far in this Riverside Calvary affair remains the one entitled “Langley Township could strip tax break from churches defying COVID health orders.”

This, in addition to “B.C. churches breaking COVID-19 rules still get government tax breaks,” describes the basic rationalist views here. As Graeme Wood reported in the article, “Riverside got an $11,997 tax break from the Township of Langley in 2019; in 2018 it got a $10,925 break.” “Riverside” meaning Riverside Calvary Chapel in Langley, British Columbia, Canada.

Only a fine of $2,300 with tax breaks as much as 5 times as much as that fine number per annum, in the most recent years. Then they break the order to attend church; two Chilliwack pastors break the order to attend churches explicitly for religious reasons; and then, 19 churches are reported – only in the Fraser Valley – to have violated the public order.

Thusly, this is a pathology within sectors of religious communities, not secular ones. Dr. Teale Phelps-Bondaroff of the British Columbia Humanist Association has been making a public call for every municipality within the province to have a public benefits test. Why?

A public benefits test for permissive tax exemptions. The argument was that if a worship place breaks the law, then the subsidies (tax exemptions) should be removed, because these are paid on the public dime and should be held to the same standards as everyone else: admission prices – so to speak.

Dr. Teale Phelps-Bondaroff stated to Graeme Wood, “[Permissive tax exemptions] exist specifically to support work that benefits the community… 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.”

Phelps-Bondaroff continued to dig into the Township of Langley. He noted Council interpretation is important with the local bylaws and Community Charter setting the framework. He argues these favour the places of worship over non-religious non-profit groups.

The Council of the Township of Langley reviews and passes permissive tax exemptions every year. Accordingly, tax-exempt organizations, e.g., churches, have to “fulfil some basic need, improve the life of Township residents and are compatible with or are complementary to services offered by the Township.”

This is how Woods is reporting it. Wherein, the breaking of health orders for the public good do not improve quality of life standards for members of the public.

Apparently, the permissive tax exemptions policy for the Township of Langley stipulates, “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.”

This is important. Furthermore, nobody from the Township of Langley Council responded to queries from the news agency for the article by Wood. Wood reported on December 21, 2020.

Now, the “Langley Township could strip tax break from churches defying COVID health orders” was January 11, 2021, so later. The councillors made public statements about this. The Township of Langley Councillor, Kim Richter placed a motion forward to “yank the permissive tax exemption status in 2022” from organizations failing to abide by the orders of the province’s health officer.

Richter made, more or less, the same argument, stating, “I think we have to put our foot down… There are lots of organizations out there that get the grant… and they abide by the rules, and they should continue to be supported by public monies.”

Hence, if an organization receiving permissive tax exemptions fails to follow public health orders, the status is removed.

Councillor David Davis approached this from a different angle, saying, “I don’t believe this motion says we’re going to censor what you’re saying, how you’re saying it… It’s just saying we can’t support a tax deduction if you are disobeying the head medical ministry.”

Councillor Blair Whitmarsh stated, “I’ve been disappointed by the action of some of the groups in our com that have chosen to disregard the orders that have come from the ministry.”

The British Columbia Humanist Association estimated $12.2 million (CAD) is given out to places of worship in 2019 via permissive tax exemptions by the Government of British Columbia.

Councillor Petrina Arnason was concerned about legal ramifications with the potential for Charter legal challenges to the motion. Richter has a lot of Council experience and had the savvy to propose sending the motion to Township of Langley staff for review of “final wording and any legal implications.”

Councillor Bob Long is the only one noted as opposing it. No word from Mayor Jack Froese, Councillor Steve Ferguson, Councillor Margaret Kunst, and Councillor Eric Woodward in the reportage.

As a conclusive note to date, the motion is expected to come back at a later Council meeting for a review and vote, so continues the saga of church and political & public life in Langley.

Footnotes

 [1] Pastor Hamre stated:

Let us pray a prayer of blessing upon the commitments made tonight.

Heavenly Father, we thank you for the sincerity of the individuals standing before us. We thank you for their integrity. We thank you for their years of experience and their willingness to serve the Township of Langley. We pray now that you would empower them with knowledge, and wisdom, and discernment. We pray that you would help them to have listening ears and hearts that are open to people and topics as they come week by week. We pray that you would give them physical stamina and endurance. We pray that you would protect them and protect their families. We pray that you would bless them as they serve one another and serve our community.

We pray these blessings in the name of Christ, amen. 

[2] Dear Hon. Mayor and Council of the Township of Langley (ToL),

I am writing regarding the practice of beginning the inaugural session of the new ToL Council with a prayer in 2018.

I am a ToL resident. I did not attend the inaugural meeting of the new ToL Council at the time. Looking at the contents of the agenda of November 5, 2018, I noticed the inaugural ToL Council session was opened by the national anthem, an oath of office, and then an invocation in item C.1 stating, “Pastor Derrick Hamre, Christian Life Assembly, to offer the invocation on behalf of all present.” Pastor Hamre is the lead pastor of the Christian Life Assembly, which is part of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (PAOC) and, thus, a Christian religious representative invocation, i.e., an invocation with clear and straightforward interpretation as a prayer with reference to Christianity, in general, and Christian religious terminology, in particular, including “Heavenly Father,” “pray,” “prayer,” “blessing,” “bless, “Christ,” and “amen.” In short, with the statement in full, it is a Christian prayer. I took the liberty of transcribing Pastor Hamre’s wording in full for review:

Let us pray a prayer of blessing upon the commitments made tonight.

Heavenly Father, we thank you for the sincerity of the individuals standing before us. We thank you for their integrity. We thank you for their years of experience and their willingness to serve the Township of Langley. We pray now that you would empower them with knowledge, and wisdom, and discernment. We pray that you would help them to have listening ears and hearts that are open to people and topics as they come week by week. We pray that you would give them physical stamina and endurance. We pray that you would protect them and protect their families. We pray that you would bless them as they serve one another and serve our community.

We pray these blessings in the name of Christ, amen. 

As a freethinker, or a non-believer, and someone who believes in the separation of religion and government, I consider prayers as out of place, inappropriate, and against the fundamental principle of secularism in a government meeting. Indeed, a significant minority of the population of the ToL have no religious affiliation or a minority religious affiliation apart from Christianity in its various denominations or sects. The selection of one religion at the exclusion of others and in this case, of the majority religion, has the effect of serving as a subtle reminder to Langley citizens without a faith or of a minority faith that they are different than the majority. It sends the message: the political space of ToL Council favours one group over others. This has the effect of making some people feel unwelcome in this venue.

I wanted to bring to the attention of the Mayor and council a Supreme Court ruling addressing the question of beginning municipal council meetings with prayers. Specifically, the 2015 Supreme Court ruling in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay, found “the prayer recited by the municipal council in breach of the state’s duty of neutrality resulted in a distinction, exclusion and preference based on religion.”

This ruling elaborated, noting that “the pursuit of the ideal of a free and democratic society requires the state to encourage everyone to participate freely in public life regardless of their beliefs. A neutral public space free from coercion, pressure and judgment on the part of public authorities in matters of spirituality is intended to protect every person’s freedom and dignity, and it helps preserve and promote the multicultural nature of Canadian society. The state’s duty to protect every person’s freedom of conscience and religion means that it may not use its powers in such a way as to promote the participation of certain believers or non-believers in public life to the detriment of others…” (Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City), 2015, SCC 16 [2015] 2 S.C.R. 3).

The ruling found that the “sponsorship of one religious tradition by the state in breach of its duty of neutrality amounts to discrimination against all other such traditions.” And that “the state may not act in such a way as to create a preferential public space that favours certain religious groups and is hostile to others.” Indeed, by extension, “… the state may not, by expressing its own religious preference, promote the participation of believers to the exclusion of non-believers or vice versa” [paragraph 75].

This ruling applies to municipal councils across Canada. As such, council sessions, inaugural or otherwise, should not include prayer. This ruling took place in 2015, before the inaugural 2018 ToL Council meeting. It is possible that the Mayor, Council, and staff were not aware of it, or its implications on the agenda and procedures of the inaugural meeting. As a result, I wanted to ask the following questions:

What process has the ToL Council historically followed in selecting people to deliver the prayer at the inaugural session of a new council?

What process was followed for the 2018 inaugural meeting?

If any, what compensation is provided to the individuals who deliver prayers at the most recent inaugural meeting?

In light of the Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay decision, how will the Mayor and council be changing process and procedures for future inaugural meetings?

Thank you for your response and prompt action.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen

ToL Resident

[3] See Homeopathy – The Pathology of Pseudomedicine in Canada,” “Naturopathy – How Not to be a Doctor and Harm the Public Good,” “Making a Buck as a Mounteback – Astrologers, Mediums, and Psychics,” “The Fantastic Capacity for Believing the Incredible,” “The Message of William Marrion Branham: Responses Commentary,” “Freethought for the Small Towns: Case Study,” and “Canadians’ and Others’ Convictions to Divine Interventionism in the Matters of the Origins and Evolution.” (Hyperlinks active)

[4] Timothy 2:12 (NIV) states, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” Timothy 2:12 (KJ21) states, “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” Timothy 2:12 (KJV) states, “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”

Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash

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