German court rules church tax opt-out ruled equivalent to leaving

In Germany religious communities which have been recognised as statutory corporations by the state can have the state’s tax authorities collect a religious tax from their members, which is usually an amount equivalent to 8-9% of the income tax owed by the individual members. This is one of the religious privileges the two big churches (Roman Catholic Church and Lutheran Church) enjoy, but also smaller religious communities such as Free Churches and also Jewish communities. The state is compensated to the tune of 2-4% of the tax collected, but it is controversial whether this actually covers all the costs the state incurs.

This privilege has two important consequences: first, it reduces the pressure of Sunday services to be interesting enough to get the parishioners to come to church, as the churches get their money either way. It goes without saying that attendance figures have been in decline for years. Second, it means a high degree of entanglement of state and church administration in coordinating the levying of the tax. In Germany, every citizen needs to register with the civil registry of the municipality within which they reside, and also declare their religion. In turn, churches also transmit their records to the state, so every citizen from the moment they are baptised will be entered into the registry as a member of the respective religion, and later when they start earning money get the church tax deducted automatically by the state.

A retired professor of Catholic canon law one day had an idea. According to his understanding of canon law, declaring your resignation from the church at a government office as many people do in order to stop paying the church tax – was not a valid resignation with respect to canon law. That is, he argued that you could leave the church as far as the government was concerned and thus be spared the church tax, but remain a member of good standing in the eyes of the church and receive all sacraments etc. He even asked the clerk to specify that he was leaving the “Roman Catholic Church (Statutory Corporation)”.

Understandably, the church was not amused, and the archdiocese of Freiburg sued the city of Staufen in administrative court. The lower court had agreed with the professor’s position, but the court of appeals, the Federal Administrative Court announced on  September 26 that you cannot just opt out of the church tax. If you leave the church, it means you leave completely. The verdict is not available yet,  but there is a press release.

On September 24, shortly before the verdict was announced, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference decreed that members who opt out of the church tax would be excluded from sacraments and religious burials (also see this post on Dispatches). Interesting enough though the bishops did explicitly state that such a resignation would not lead to an automatic excommunication.

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