A B.C. Supreme Court judge has ruled that the city of Coquitlam did not violate the religious freedoms of a congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses by requiring it to pay property tax on the land around its church.
Madam Justice Carol Ross, in a ruling released yesterday, found that even if a municipality provides a benefit to some religious groups, it is not required to do so for every group. The Westwood Congregation was challenging a policy enacted by Coquitlam in 2004 that imposed a freeze on future property-tax exemptions for non-profit groups and churches.
The congregation, which had received a full exemption for 35 years, had to build a new Kingdom Hall after some of the land from its previous home was expropriated by the province to widen a road. The city turned down a request by the Jehovah's Witnesses for an exemption on their new building, which resulted in an annual property tax bill of more than $19,000. The province recently added $2,800 to the church's annual tax bill, as a "parking tax" linked to funding for the regional transit system.
In 2003, B.C. municipalities were granted new powers to levy property taxes on the lands around a place of worship, though the church itself is exempt. The congregation in Coquitlam is the only one in the country, so far, to have been required to pay tax on the land around its place of worship.
"If that is not discrimination, then I do not know what is," said David Gnam, a lawyer who represented the congregation during a four-day B.C. Supreme Court hearing earlier this year.
Judge Ross disagreed that it was a discriminatory policy and said the municipality has the right to decide who gets an exemption, as long as the policy complies with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The property-tax exemptions for every other church in Coquitlam "enhance the exercise of a fundamental freedom," but do not create a "substantial interference" with the religious rights of the Jehovah's Witnesses, the judge said. "Here, the burden is indirect and, in my view, not substantial."
The judge also said that Coquitlam breached its "duty of procedural fairness" in the process that led to the dismissal of the congregation's request for a tax exemption, and ordered the city to reconsider the request. One solution suggested by the judge was for the city to provide a grant to the church, as it did for the Royal Canadian Legion, which received $125,000 after its property-tax exemption was rejected.
The congregation is waiting for a response from the city before it decides whether to file an appeal, said Mr. Gnam.
Lisa Parkes, the acting city solicitor in Coquitlam, said yesterday that the city is considering an appeal of the ruling. If it does not file an appeal then it will comply with the judge's order to grant the congregation a new hearing to consider its request for a property-tax exemption.