Greater Victoria school board trustee Ryan Painter says the SOGI 123 sex education program is about respecting inclusion and diversity at local schools. A Saanich church recently hosted Jenn Smith, who has been critical of the program, calling it anti-Christian (Black Press File).

Saanich church hosting anti-SOGI speaker received more than $10,000 in permissive tax exemptions last year

The District of Saanich is currently reviewing permissive tax exemptions

A Saanich church which hosted a controversial speaker opposed to contemporary sex education received more than $10,000 in permissive tax exemptions from Saanich in 2018, records show.

City Light Church of Victoria on Obed Avenue hosted Jenn Smith Sunday evening. According to Saanich Police, the event drew 50 speakers in favour of Smith, and 50 opponents of the speaker, who has been touring the province in opposition to the provincial Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) 123 program. Accepted in all provincial school districts, it assists in helping educators build inclusive environments for students of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

Smith identifies as transgender, but believes the SOGI 123 program includes anti-Christian values. Smith’s last appearance in the area in early May drew hundreds of protesters and Oak Bay police shut down the event.

RELATED: Saanich church hosts anti-SOGI rally, drawing pro-SOGI protests

Smith’s presence not only turned a quiet Saanich neighbourhood into a flash point of British Columbia’s growing culture war over sex education, but could also shape municipal finances.

Saanich council last month asked staff to commission a report into permissive tax exemptions for various organizations including places of public worship, possibly leading to a public benefits test for organizations including churches, with councillors asking staff to review current practices against conditions that could appear in an eventual public benefits test.

These conditions included among others the requirement “that services and activities be equally available to all residents” of the municipality.

RELATED: Public benefits test for churches could be coming to Saanich after all

Megan Catalano, a spokesperson for the District of Saanich, did not directly respond to the question of if Sunday’s incident might shape Saanich’s review of permissive tax exemptions in offering a more general answer to the question.

“The criteria to determine whether a place of worship or a non-profit organization meets the test for inclusiveness will be developed as part of establishing the new council policy and procedures around permissive tax exemptions,” she said. “This is a complex process to review and implement that will take time and careful consideration.”

While the church hosting Smith might easily appear to be exclusionary by hosting such a figure, any such assessment must also consider any number of other questions before reaching a conclusion, starting with the question of whether Sunday’s decision to host Smith was a singular, one-off event or part of a larger pattern that violates Saanich’s eventual definition of inclusivity.

“Saanich has a duty of care to ensure that its tax funds are not going to groups that perpetuate discrimination and hate,” said Teale Phelps Bondaroff, a former councillor candidate, who has been a leading voice for a public benefits test. “This example is why a robust public benefits test for permissive tax exemption recipients is is so important.”

The question of Saanich’s permissive exemptions entered public discourse last year after a provincial organization promoting secular humanism questioned why B.C. communities, including Saanich, continue to grant tax exemptions to properties that religious groups own.

Under existing legislation, Saanich may exempt from taxation any area of land surrounding buildings set apart for public worship. Once granted, the exemption is perpetual until properties changes ownership or are no longer used for their original purpose. (Buildings used for public worship including improvements and the land underneath them are exempt from taxation under existing legislation).

According to a staff report, 46 Saanich churches have previously received permissive tax exemptions for the land surrounding their buildings. These permissive tax exemptions totaled $561,186 in 2018. By way of background, this figure represents about a third of the total value of tax exemptions granted in 2018, as Saanich granted non-religious institutions about $1.06 million in tax exemptions.

The church’s decision to host Smith, whom the Saanich News has previously contacted with a series of questions, has certainly re-focused the public’s attention on the issue of contemporary sex education.

Local school board trustee Ryan Painter, who has been a critic of anti-SOGI figures, said the most important thing Saanich residents can do to educate themselves about SOGI 123 and to learn why it’s so important to the safety of LGBTQ2S students in local schools.

“SOGI 123, at its core, is about respecting inclusion and diversity in our schools by creating safe spaces for our students to learn who they are in this increasingly complex world we live in,” he said. “We owe it to our students, and the LGBTQ2S community, to stand and defend them.”

The Saanich News has also contacted the church, and will update this story if (and when) comments become available.


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wolfgang.depner@saanichnews.com

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