Ask Dr. P.B. 1 – Religious Privilege in Practice in Canada: Municipal Prayers & Permissive Tax Exemptions

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff has been a community organizer for more than 15 years. He has been active in Saanich municipal politics. He earned a PhD in Politics and International Studies from the University of Cambridge and two BAs from the University of Calgary in Political Science and International Relations, respectively. He is a Board Member of the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network. He owns and operates a research consultancy called The Idea Tree. He is a New Democrat, politically, and is the President of the Saanich-Gulf Islands NDP riding association. He founded OceansAsia as a marine conservation organization devoted to combating illegal fishing and wildlife crime. Here we talk about the recent research work of the British Columbia Humanist Association.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What are you doing in general terms now? How are you progressing through each of them?

Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff: I thought I would talk about some of the research the BC Humanist Association is working on now.

The research team is working on two separate areas of focus. One is tax exemptions for places of worship, and the other looks at legislative prayer.

Our work on legislative prayer has two broad areas: prayer in municipal council meetings and prayer in the BC Legislature. [Ed. See interview with Ranil Prasad, “Interview with Ranil Prasad on Municipal Prayers.”]

In 2015, in the Saguenay case, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that prayers in municipal councils were unconstitutional. This practice represented an unconstitutional violation of the separation of religion and government. Prayer in this context privileged some views over others. It excluded many individuals, and fundamentally, it violated the state’s duty to religious neutrality.

That decision was really critical. It said, “You cannot start a municipal council meeting with a prayer.” Last summer, the BCHA research team did a survey of every municipality in British Columbia to see if they were in compliance with Saguenay, 23 were not in compliance – they were starting the inaugural sessions with a prayer. Look for a report on this research coming out soon.

Now, the research team is looking at municipal prayers across the country. We have already encountered a number of municipalities that start regular sessions with prayer. This is something we didn’t find this in B.C.

Our research team looked at the top 50 municipalities in each province (by population) and we are now looking at the more than 3,000 municipalities in Canada, all to see which ones are following the Saguenay decision. We have already completed Manitoba and are working through Ontario. We decided to start on these provinces as our preliminary survey of the first 50 municipalities identified a significant number that were not in compliance.

The reason this work is important is because the court decision is robust and well-argued. However, if it is not followed, the decision is less impactful on people’s lives. Our goal is to identify municipalities violating the law and remind them they should not start their sessions with a prayer, and monitor them to see if they comply with the ruling.

Our other work on legislative prayer is in the B.C. Legislature. We have been studying this issue for a number of years. We started looking at prayers in the B.C. Legislature going back to 2003 [as part of the House of Prayers Report and accompanying study]. We have been analyzing data and releasing a lot of research on our findings.

We have the original House of Prayer Report, this looks at prayers in the BC Legislature in a comprehensive +130-page document.

This summer we released a supplement to this report that specifically considered Indigenous content in prayers in the BC Legislature and explored the possibility of starting sittings of the B.C. Legislative Assembly with a territorial acknowledgement – our Decolonizing Prayer report.  

We are also planning on looking at the history of legislative prayer in British Columbia, tracking how the processes has changed over time and what caused changes to occur. This project is currently on pause until the legislative library opens up again.

We also just submitted a draft of a book chapter. This piece is an update of the House of Prayers study, and it looks at prayers since the B.C. Legislature changed its policies.

One outcome of the House of Prayer’s report (and the broader review of legislative prayer conducted by the Office of the Clerk) was that the procedures around prayers in the BC Legislature have changed. In November 2019 the practice changed so that now daily sittings begin with ‘prayers and reflections’ rather than just ‘prayers,’ and the list of sample prayers provided to MLAs has been updated.

Our book chapter looks at how these changes have impacted the content, structure, and religiosity of prayers delivered in the BC Legislature. In other words, we wanted to determine the extent to which changing the name of the standing order changed the content of the prayers.

The assumption is that there will be some small change, because if you are asked to deliver a prayer, then you’re more likely to give one. It could be secular. You could read poetry or read an inspirational quote, but because you were asked to deliver a prayer, you are much more likely to adopt some kind of prayer-like structure, at the very least. And we saw this in our previous work, where even when an MLA was reading a poem or delivering an otherwise secular statement, the MLA was still ending the prayer or statement in “Amen.” So we thought that the procedural changes from prayers to ‘prayers and reflections’ would encourage people to be more expansive in their acknowledgements, less likely to adopt a religious structure, and perhaps less likely to deliver a prayer. This chapter is currently being reviewed.

The BCHA has yet another piece of research out on legislative prayer, and this one is a peer reviewed article in the Journal of Secularism and Nonreligion that I wrote with Ian Bushfield, our Executive Director, This article explores the challenges that the Office of the Clerk faced when attempting to revise the list of sample prayers that are provided to MLAs.

Every day an MLA delivers a prayer in the B.C. Legislature at the start of the session. They are given two choices: They can read a prayer off a sample list or deliver a prayer of their own devising. We found exactly half of the MLAs were delivering a prayer off the sample list, or a combination. The sample sheet is a very narrow range of options. Half of them are sectarian, overtly religious, though vaguely non-denominational. The other half are vaguely secular, but still follow a prayer form. The Office of the Clerk went about updating this list last year, and the BCHA submitted 6 humanist options, along with the full House of Prayers Report. The Office of the Clerk was basically looking to update the list, given that it represented only a very narrow range of faith traditions.  

What is interesting about that the active review of the list of sample prayers, is that this process may be unconstitutional, and it is certainly impractical. That is what we argue in our paper. Basically, the state is unable to adjudicate on cases of religious dogma, which has been upheld by various court decisions, and the state has a duty of religious neutrality, as stipulated in the Saguenay decision. It may impossible, therefore, for the state to generate a set of sample prayers, because every time the state selects a prayer for this list, it is, in a sense, arbitrating dogma. Selecting one prayer over another entails the state making a decision that it is incapable of making, both from a constitutional and from a practical perspective.

In our paper, we argue that the state can’t offer a sheet of sample prayers because, in so doing, it is necessarily favouring some religions over others, and it has no basis for doing so.

For those interested in what legislative prayer is like across the country, the BCHA recently released a report surveying ‘Legislative Prayer Across Canada.’

Jacobsen: What about taxes and legal exemptions?

Phelps Bondaroff: One research project that the BCHA started last summer was a survey of legislation that grants religious exceptions, where an individual or group is treated differently on the basis of religious belief or a lack of religious belief.

One component of this project is looking at permissive tax exemptions at the municipal level. A lot of municipalities under the Municipal Charter and other legislation in B.C. can exempt other actors from tax exemption. The goal of granting permissive tax exemptions is to encourage or reward, or help along, some group that is providing a benefit to the community. Some of the recipients of permissive tax exemptions are places of worship. We are looking at this policy and also calculating the overall figure for how much money municipal governments are granting in the form of municipal tax exemptions.

The question is: “Is a place of worship necessarily benefitting a community or is it acting as a private club?” There are differences between a rowing club that is open to anybody, versus a place of worship only open to members, for example. Should we be treating them the same, or giving one greater privilege?

Some places are being treated differently than non-religious recipients, e.g., a local boat club or historical society, or secular soup kitchen, would have different timelines and protocols for approval for a permissive tax exemption, than a place of worship around the corner. Places of worship may receive a tax exemption in perpetuity; whereas, a Boys and Girls Club, for example, has to apply every X number of years.

In many jurisdictions, places of worship may be granted an exemption automatically, and other would-be recipients must apply. In fact, places of worship are automatically granted statutory tax exemptions for their actual place of worship, and municipalities can choose to grant permissive tax exemptions for the rest of the land and improvements surrounding the actual place of worship.

Also, there are often no benefits test in municipalities that grant permissive tax exemptions. There is a tacit assumption that places of worship should receive a tax exemption without considering the question of public benefit. They may be providing one; some host a soup kitchen or offer some programming or services for the public. That’s great, and they may warrant permissive tax exemptions in these cases. However, some may be acting like a private club, offering services only to members. This these cases, a permissive tax exemption would not be justified.

The BCHA is working on developing sample legislation, policies, and bylaws that would provide a robust benefits test, basically saying: “Hey, if you are going to receive public tax money intended to support activities that benefit the community, then we want to check in to make sure you actively working to benefit the community.”

We are looking at various ways of measuring community benefit, and seeing if there are reasonable questions municipalities can ask to make sure tax money is going to organizations that are inclusive and provide a general benefit to the public.

We should have a backgrounder coming out on this shortly, which explains the difference between permissive and statutory tax exemptions, and a more detailed comprehensive report coming out in the near future.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Phelps Bondaroff.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

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Image Credit: Teale Phelps Bondaroff.

One thought on “Ask Dr. P.B. 1 – Religious Privilege in Practice in Canada: Municipal Prayers & Permissive Tax Exemptions

  1. The operation, and maintenance of ALL religious buildings,schools should be placed squarely on the shoulders of that religions governing authority.Also here should absolutely be no tax exemption for these organizations. Since these organizations benefit their members, then they are to be considered a club and taxed accordingly.

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