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Taxing clergymen

Posted February. 24, 2012 23:37,   


Taxes should be levied on any income earned. Christian pastors and Buddhist monks are exempt from income tax because of legal grounds for their tax exemption. Religious organizations might be non-profit agencies, but as long as clergymen earn income, they should pay taxes in principle. Protestant churches and Buddhist temples do not withhold tax in monthly salaries and tax authorities have never audited churches or temples. Thus, religious institutions have been customarily exempted from taxation. Whenever the National Tax Service asks the Strategy and Finance Ministry for an authoritative interpretation to tax clergymen, the former merely gets the reply “under review.”

Catholic priests and nuns have paid Grade A income tax since a decision made by the bishops conference of the Korean Catholic Church in 1994. The annual income of most Catholic priests and nuns, who must remain celibate, is below the threshold for income tax and they effectively pay no taxes. Unlike the Catholic Church, which has central authority, Protestantism is centered on individual churches and Buddhism on individual temples. Both lack systemic efforts corresponding to those in the Catholic Church. The National Council of Churches in Korea is reportedly taking steps to induce Protestant pastors to voluntarily pay income tax. The council includes the largest denominations, including the Presbyterian and Methodist churches of Korea, as subsidiaries.

When churches and temples were poor, no one objected to tax exemptions for religious leaders but this warrants change since they have become rich. Among ministers at the country`s largest churches, some are paid more than 100 million won (90,000 dollars) in annual salary as well as housing and book allowances, and have even passed down their churches to their children. At Buddhist temples, more than a few monks offer funeral rites on behalf of members and receive fees in return. Salaried people pay taxes of millions of won (thousands of dollars) per year and donate to religious organizations. So it is unfair for clergymen, some of whom own imported vehicles and play golf, to pay not a penny of income tax.

Of course, most Christian pastors and Buddhist monks are poor. Most ministers at small churches and those in rural areas earn under 2 million won (1,800 dollars) per month, a level similar to that of temporary workers at companies and barely enough to make ends meet. Taxes should not be levied on Buddhist monks who move around the country with a small travel budget after leading a tranquil Zen life. Some say that even if clergymen are taxed, many of them earn below the threshold for taxation and that tax authorities cannot collect taxes far exceeding the expenses required for taxation. Nevertheless, fairness is more important than anything in taxation. A truly brave politician is one who can propose taxing religious leaders as an election pledge.

Editorial Writer Song Pyeong-in (pisong@donga.com)