Religion over ConstitutionAfter the Ministry of Strategy and Finance brought up the issue early last year, the debate has continued over taxing churches.
The government reportedly plans to impose a tax on priests’ incomes. This is an issue that was debated for a long time in the West, and it is an important topic that requires serious contemplation on the relationship between church and state.
Those who support the plan have a strong belief that no citizen can be except from taxation. They argue that priests must pay tax and also receive their benefits. Some have also said that priests should participate in social security programs to prove their financial transparency.
Those who oppose the plan argue that offerings received by priests from believers are not wages in return for their labor but gifts for their spiritual service. They say offerings made from the incomes of believers have already been taxed so a religious tax would be double taxation.
What we must remember is that tax equality in the Constitution does not stand above religious freedom and actually serves freedom of religion. Religious freedom is not just about freedom in faith, service, missionary activities and religious gatherings.
The Constitution stipulated religious freedom separately to help the state actively support religion and seek the support of the religious community to elevate the prestige of the state and citizens.
Religious freedom is a kind of a higher-level silent promise that the state will pay special care to religion and religion will serve its intrinsic duty.
To this end, it is deplorable to see the latest debate because it is only focused on improving the effectiveness and efficiency of state finances and tax administration. Realistically, the government will have serious difficulty in securing tax from religious organizations. Furthermore, social security issue for priests can get complicated if the government starts to treat them as laborers.
The government, therefore, must not rely on forced taxation and should pay attention to allowing religions to perform their true functions. Most of all, the government must create an area safe from politics so that members of the religious community can serve the country in the fields of human rights, welfare, relief work and culture. This will allow the government to enjoy far more positive effects than taxing religion organizations.
Our time is in desperate need of spiritual peace and healing through religion. For our society to escape from various evils and illnesses of the modern era and take a step forward, we must restore the culture of treating the spiritual world more preciously.
Korea has maintained the stance of tax exemption for priests because the country expected religious sacrifices far more valuable than taxes. That is clearly in line with the spirit of modern laws.
Taxation must be pragmatic, but it must serve its fundamental purpose as well.
The government must remember that the country’s prestige will be heightened when it helps religion better serve its purpose and encourages members of the religious community to make important sacrifices in the name of community and justice.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a professor of theology at Chongshin University.
By Moon Byung-ho