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. FLK Institute of Taoism v. MPAC

In FLK Institute of Taoism v. MPAC (Div Ct, 2021) the Divisional Court considered the judiciary's general stance on adjudging religion matters:
Issue 2: What constitutes “worship”?

[24] FLK focused most of its oral argument on this aspect of appeal. In particular, FLK spent a good deal of time in its submissions addressing the activity that occurs on the so-called Satellite Sites. These properties represent the vast majority of assessed value for the properties under consideration.

[25] FLK argues that adherents are “worshiping” when they are attending the Satellite Sites. They are practicing a religious rite in a consecrated place. This is “worship” because in the submission of FLK, they can say it is worship. What is in the minds of others who may also be participating in the Tai-Chi on the property for different reasons other than worship is irrelevant to a determination that the property is being used in a way that would attract an exemption under section 3(1) 3.(i). FLK argues it is not proper for the Court to go behind the assertions of persons making these kinds of claims of religious practice.

[26] FLK relies on the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem, 2004 SCC 47, although this case was not argued before the application judge. In paras 50-51, the majority held:
50. In my view, the State is in no position to be, nor should it become, the arbiter of religious dogma. Accordingly, courts should avoid judicially interpreting and thus determining, either explicitly or implicitly, the content of a subjective understanding of religious requirement, "obligation", precept, "commandment", custom or ritual. Secular judicial determinations of theological or religious disputes, or of contentious matters of religious doctrine, unjustifiably entangle the court in the affairs of religion.

51. That said, while a court is not qualified to rule on the validity or veracity of any given religious practice or belief, or to choose among various interpretations of belief, it is qualified to inquire into the sincerity of a claimant's belief, where sincerity is in fact at issue: see Jones, supra; Ross, supra. It is important to emphasize, however, that sincerity of belief simply implies an honesty of belief: see Thomas v. Review Board of the Indiana Employment Security Division, supra.
[27] FLK argues that the application judge erred by concluding “worship” was not being conducted on the all the properties at issue. The application judge engaged in an impermissible inquiry by relying on the evidence of the affiant for MPAC which emphasized an evangelical nature of the activities on the sites as contrasted with acts of worship. “Evangelical” in the sense that participants doing Tai Chi were being exposed to the religious ritual but were not actively engaged in acts of worship. This came from evidence about the degree to which instructors at the sites focused on personal physical health of the participants rather than acts of worship.

[28] At paragraph 97 the application judge said:
While I accept, on all of the evidence, that the practice of Tai Chi is integral to FLK religion, the opposite is not necessarily so. The evidence does not support FLK's position that the satellite sites are used primarily for worship. The evidence supports MPAC's position that the persons engaged in the Tai Chi classes at these locations are not worshiping through Tai Chi, but that these classes and the facilities in which they are held are used in an evangelical way.
[29] FLK also relied on a recent decision of the Quebec Superior Court - Institut de taoisme Fung Loy Kok v. Villie de Montreal, 2021 QCCS 3873. The decision was released October 7, 2021 and was not before the application judge. Nevertheless, FLK argues that the Quebec Court’s approach, in accepting that FLK was entitled to a property tax exemption in Quebec, is persuasive that the application judge erred in her decision regarding the Ontario properties.

[30] MPAC argues that the application judge accepted that religious expression and activities occur at the Satellite Sites. However, in order to create an exemption for those properties, those activities must constitute acts of worship, a more narrow form of activity than the simple act of conducting a practice that has religious connotation. The primary purpose test requires an objective analysis. This is contrasted with FLK’s subjective argument – “if we say it is worship, it is”. MPAC notes the Quebec municipal tax regime is different than the Act and the recent Quebec case is distinguishable on that basis. Also, the Amselem decision focused on the specified Charter right of freedom of religion. In MPAC’s submission, this analysis is different that that which is appropriate for considering an entitlement to an exemption. There is no question in this case that FLK is entirely free to conduct religious practice on the sites at issue. However, the Legislature has used specific words to differentiate the taxation treatment of different uses of land by religious organizations. For example, the Legislature expressly separately exempted church yards (section 3(1) 3(ii)) and burying grounds (section 3(1) 3(ii)). Amselem gave a Charter analysis where a violation of Charter rights was in issue. The applicant did not raise a Charter section 2(b) issue before the application judge; it cannot be raised for the first time on appeal. In any event, Anselem did not address the exemption type issue before the applications judge.

[31] I am of the view the application judge applied an appropriate analysis when considering the issue of the activity that occurs at the Satellite Sites. She had evidence before her that contradicted the subjective evidence of the FLK expert about the nature of the activity put forward by FLK. There was an evidentiary basis, upon which she was entitled to rely, to find that the activity did not fit in the four corners of worship. It is not open for a court on a review to substitute its version of the facts for that of the original court unless the application judge committed a palpable and overriding error. I do not find such an error in the application judge’s reason for decision. I do not see any reason to engage in a further analysis of the evidence in pursuit of attempting to insert my view of the evidence above that of the application judge.

[32] Despite the increasing secularization of the mainstream of our society, protection of religious practices and freedom of religion remain important values in the Province. Nevertheless, the Act’s exemption for places of worship in the Act has been around for a very long time. The language of the Act in section 3(1) 3(i) has remained unchanged since at least 1952 (see Les Soeurs de la Visitation d’Ottawa v. City of Ottawa, 1951 CanLII 109 (ON SC), [1952] O.R. 61 (S.C.O), aff’d 1952 CanLII 283 (ON CA), [1952] O.W.N. 280 (C.A.). It is acknowledged that religious practices in this province have changed a great deal since that date. However, this case is not about validating or invalidating forms of religious practice. It is about deciding if a particular acknowledged religious practice, occurring at the Satellite Sites, constitutes acts of worship such that it can be granted an exemption.

[33] The statutory scheme of the Act dealing with exemptions for properties used by religious organizations differentiates types of religious conduct. What happens in a burying ground can objectively be seen to be a different type of experience than worship that occurs inside a religious building. An act of worship may well occur at a graveside or in a churchyard. Yet the other things that are easily understood to occur in a place like a graveyard would displace worship as a primary purpose. Accordingly, the Legislature decided to treat these areas separately and specifically exempt them in other subsections of section 3 of the Act. This militates against the subjective approach urged by FLK. I am persuaded by this aspect of MPAC’s argument and the focus of the decision under appeal which considered all the evidence concerning the Satellite Sites. While I appreciate the direction of the Supreme Court in Amselem, the case at bar does not require the court to engage in questions of religious doctrine or arbitrate disparate views among a particular religious group. The application judge was to consider a primary purpose test when considering the evidence about activities that occur on certain pieces of property. It was an objective exercise. The application judge had before her evidence that a different type of religious observance occurred on the sites that MPAC had agreed were exempt properties, as contrasted to what occurred at the Satellite Sites. This was a benchmark against which the application judge could compare what was occurring at the Satellite Sites. It is in this context that her comments in paragraph 97 are understood.

[34] The application judge found in paragraph 97 that “the evidence supports MPAC’s position that persons engaged in the Tai Chi classes at these locations were not worshipping through Tai Chi but that these classes and the facilities in which they are held are used in an evangelical way.”

[35] The application judge found that the act of worship required for the exemption did not occur on the Satellite Sites. The aspects of practice found on the exempt sites was not observed at the Satellite Sites. This is a finding that is entitled to deference. The application judge agreed with the MPAC position that people were not worshipping while doing Tai-Chi at the Satellite Sites. It was open for her to make that determination on the evidence before her. She found the acts to be in the nature of evangelization. Evangelization is a religious practice. However, it is not one that the Legislature has deemed to attract an exemption.

[36] Accordingly, I find that the application judge did not commit an error of law in assessing what occurred at the Satellite Sites and properly denied those properties an exemption under the Act.



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