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If tax exemptions for non-profits are aimed at rewarding and assisting organizations that support the public good, it seems pretty logical to remove those exemptions from anyone who’s breaking the law or undermining the community.

In a new report on property tax exemptions for churches, the British Columbia Humanist Association points out a variety of ways that automatic provincial tax exemptions use taxpayer money to support churches who actively harm their communities. Alongside the usual suspects, they’ve singled out a new cluster of churches who’ve proven they don’t deserve taxpayer support: COVID-denialist churches who defy public health orders, putting the rest of the community at risk in the name of religious freedom.

This follows a motion, put forward by Langley’s Councillor Kim Richter, to strip churches of their municipal tax exemptions if they break with public health laws put in place to stop the pandemic’s spread.

The motion appears to have progressed little since it was introduced, but it’s a safe bet that the BC Humanists would be on board.

The report’s authors point to the unique transmission risks presented by religious gatherings: large groups in close proximity for events of long duration that involve singing and speaking loudly (practices that expel more potentially infectious droplets). What’s more, elderly people are over-represented in religious congregations.

As we know, people gathering in these environments disperse into the community, where those who contract the disease inflate the infection rate. Many of these people, informed by their religious leaders that COVID isn’t real or that precautions aren’t worth following, may also be less likely to follow the correct protective procedures to stop community spread.

In other words, not only are these churches failing to provide a public good worthy of tax exemption, they’re actually increasing public expenses by increasing community spread. They pay less than their fair share while driving costs higher — and that’s to say nothing of the less tangible costs to the community such as illness, loss of life, and the strain of extended quarantine periods.

Currently, places of worship refusing to follow COVID precautions face fines… but those are outweighed mightily by the tax exemptions granted to them just by virtue of being churches, without regard for what they teach.

The report argues that municipalities lose autonomy in local governance when the province grants local churches these automatic statutory exemptions. The lack of oversight, they say, undermines the city’s knowledge and decision-making about who’s really providing value (or doing harm) to a community:

The ability to make decisions as to how and to whom tax exemptions are allocated is an important component of ensuring responsible and equitable disbursement of tax funds, and should have the ability to prioritize. Municipalities have a duty to provide proper oversight on any recipient of a tax exemption, but can only fulfill this responsibility when able to make decisions.

Policy researcher Adriana Thom adds:

When places of worship partake in discriminatory or illegal actions, they are not acting in a way that benefits the wider community. In those cases, municipalities should have the discretion — and the duty — to see that taxpayers’ dollars are not being put to misuse with such causes.

Religions are happy to claim that their tax-exempt status is justified on the grounds of their positive contribution, economic and otherwise, to society. That in itself is a claim that’s worth disputing… but by their own logic, these organizations should welcome a proposal like this.

If tax exemption is a reward for the good churches do, the loss of it is a fair consequence for the harm.

(Image via Shutterstock)