Pushing through clergy tax

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Pushing through clergy tax

The discussion over imposing a tax on clergy that has been ongoing for 46 years is not likely to be concluded any time soon. Saenuri Party lawmakers on the Strategy and Finance Committee met with religious leaders at the National Assembly VIP dining room on Nov. 24 to try to seek their understanding of the taxation, set to be implemented next year. But the Christian leaders strongly protested, saying the tax amounted to religious persecution.

Last year, the government announced that the income tax ordinance would be revised to classify income of the clergy as a “reward” and impose taxes starting in 2015. Religious leaders protested, saying it could lead to an audit of religious organizations. But the government offered a revised plan to include benefits like earned income tax credit and replaced tax withholding with self-assessment and payment.

Since the revised plan is far more relaxed, it was considered symbolic rather than a move that would actually expand tax revenue. But even this nominal plan is being opposed by the religious leaders, and it is uncertain whether it will be passed in the National Assembly. Those who oppose it are conservative Christian leaders. Catholics and Buddhists have embraced the tax plan, and the liberal Christian leaders are also favorable to the idea.

The conservative Christians claim that religion is separate from economy. They also seem to think that imposing tax on pastors is insulting to the clergy. But the Republic of Korea is governed by its Constitution. Religion cannot be above the Constitution, which says: “All citizens have the duty to pay taxes under the conditions as prescribed by law.” No clause in the tax law excludes the clergy from the duty. The decision not to impose income tax on them was a tactic used by previous authoritarian governments to appease the religious sector. So taxing the clergy is not introducing a new rule but a process of normalization.

Taxation of the clergy is the global standard. The American clergy pay federal income tax, and in the United Kingdom, pastors who are paid more than 8,500 pounds ($13,343) pay tax not only on their cash compensation but also on goods. In Japan, the clergy are required to withhold tax on their compensation.

A recent Real Meter survey showed that 71.3 percent of respondents support taxing the clergy, while only 13.5 percent oppose it. But the Saenuri Party is reluctant to process the bill for fear of opposition from mega churches. It is self-contradicting as the ruling party did not allow the labor unions to get involved in the discussion of public servants’ pension reform but still respect the opinions of the affected party when it comes to the clergy tax. The conservative Christian clergy need to change their position on tax. Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”

The author is an international and political news writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 28, Page 29

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