Pay to pray: Understanding Germany’s church tax

A so-called church tax in Germany may be behind a steady decline in the European nation’s church membership numbers. The Pew Research Center, a non-profit, non-partisan public opinion group based in Washington, DC, cites the tax as a factor behind an exodus of Germans officially leaving their religious communities.

Germany is among several European countries that collect a compulsory tax on behalf of religious communities. Employers collect and submit each employee’s payroll tax data, including religious affiliation, to the Federal Tax Office.

Taxation for members begin with baptism, when officially joining a church, or transferring from one participating church to another.

For affiliated Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, the annual tax assessment is about 8 or 9 percent of a person’s income, depending on where they live.

According to the 2011 German census, 30 percent of the population identified as members of the Catholic church and 29 percent were members of the Evangelical Church, which is comprised of 20 Lutheran, Reformed and United regional churches.

Those not belonging to a church are simply not taxed.

The “Kir­chen­steu­er,” as it’s known, is collected and turned over to participating religious communities to pay for maintaining institutions, buildings, funding charitable organizations or paying the salaries of clergy.

The practice of citizens supporting the church dates back centuries.

“The payment of tithes, deriving from the biblical practice of sacred offerings and made compulsory by a synodal decree of 585, is held to be the oldest regular source of ecclesiastical revenue on German soil,” according to a 2016 publication of the Federal Ministry of Finance.

The church tax has been reaffirmed in modern Federal and Länder (state) laws. While the country’s Weimar Constitution of 1919 provides for a separation of church and state, it also grants religious societies the ability to levy taxes as public-law corporations.

In 2015, the Federal Ministry of Finance changed its policy to include capital gains and allowed banks to collect the tax at the source.

“The procedure for levying church taxes is modernized and simplified in the area of ​​capital income,” according to the ministry’s website.

The change means the faithful are potentially subject to taxation for a greater portion of their total income.

In protest, droves of Germans have formally left the church to avoid the increase. The Harvard University Divinity School reported more than 400,000 German Catholics and Protestants de-registered with a church in 2014, beginning a trend that has continued to accelerate.

Many continue to practice their faith after making the separation official, leaving religious organizations looking at ways to cope with billions of dollars in lost revenue, while providing the same services.

Lane Luckie, a news anchor and reporter for KLTV in Tyler, Texas, is traveling in Germany and Belgium as part of a fellowship with the RIAS Berlin Commission. The bi-national journalist exchange, which is a partnership with the Radio Television Digital News Foundation, was established in 1992 to promote understanding between the United States and Germany in the field of broadcasting. Click here to learn more.

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of KLTV/KTRE-TV or Raycom Media.  They are solely the opinion of the author. All content © Copyright 2017 Lane Luckie


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