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Tuesday, August 9, 2022

SAB demagoguery that is undermining the constitution: the case of the Church and its “fair” taxation

By: Gašper Blažič

The thesis that the (Catholic) Church does not pay taxes is probably one of the most popular urban myths in Slovenia. You can hear it both behind the bar and in the media, even from the highest political stages. Therefore, it is also very ready for political demagoguery, especially in the sensitive pre-election period, when it is necessary to use all the instruments for the psychological control of the masses, who must react the way the client wants. So, more under the influence of emotions and in accordance with the laws of the conditioned reflex.

Probably no one will be particularly surprised if I say that the myth about the Church and taxes was also supported by the “seamstress” from the four-leaf clover KUL. I am talking, of course, about Alenka Bratušek, the former Slovenian Prime Minister who, very soon after her election in 2013, paid an official visit to the Vatican to the equally newly elected Pope Francis. The ink on the report on their meeting did not even dry well when the “big bang” came from the Holy See: the beheading of the Archdiocese of Ljubljana and Maribor. I cannot claim that this is the result of the Prime Minister’s visit, but one thing is clear: when Bratušek returned to her homeland, all the beautiful words and promises she made to the Pope were instantly forgotten. And the same Alenka Bratušek in her new pre-election programme with the significant title “Let’s do what needs to be done” also pointed out a point that reads as follows: “Fair taxation of the Church, comparable to taxation of citizens and legal entities.”

It is a classic example of rhetoric that does not actually say anything, so this programmatic point is elusive as an amoeba. First, which Church does Bratušek have in mind? The term Church (a Slovene term close to the German “Kirche” comes from the Greek word Ekklesia, which is derived from the Hebrew word “qahal”) is a generic term for all Christian (!) communities and for the religious building where Christian rites are performed. Therefore, the term “church”, if written with a lowercase letter, is related to real estate (for example, the cathedral church of St. Nicholas in Ljubljana), but if written with a capital letter, it is meant as an organisation and community. The problem is that we have more Christian religious communities, so the term Church does not say much if we do not say whether it means the Catholic Church, perhaps Orthodox (Serbian, Macedonian…), Evangelical, Pentecost… Therefore, opponents prefer to use almost the infamous acronym RKC, which is almost like waving a red rag to a bull. Bratušek, however, used the term Church, probably in the hope that we will all know what she means. And unfortunately, this is not without malice lurking in the background.

And taxes? Anyone who browses the web a bit can find an article on the tax obligations of religious communities. Beware, the article is not about the Church (any), it is about religious communities in general. These are tax laws that rely on Article 7 of the Constitution of the Republic of Slovenia, which states that the state and religious communities are separate, their operation is free, and they are equal. This means that we do not have special laws on individual religious communities in the country, but some open issues where legislation is not precise enough can be resolved by mutual agreement between the state and the religious community (which should not offend nostalgic fans of socialism, since in the time of self-government we also had so-called self-government interest agreements – SIS). Due to constant accusations that the (Catholic) Church has a privileged status in tax laws, proposals have been coming to the Ministry of Finance all the time to finally make order. In 2015 (at the time when Dr Miro Cerar was Prime Minister), the Ministry replied that the taxation of religious communities was regulated by law (see HERE). In the explanation, the Ministry wrote, among other things: “At masses, funerals, communions, confessions, etc. these can be voluntary contributions (donations) that are not subject to VAT, so VAT on these voluntary contributions does not need to be charged. However, to the extent that a religious community carries out an economic activity for a fee, these services are subject to VAT. If it charges for these activities in the course of performing the activities of religious organisations or performs other activities that are exempt from VAT (humanitarian, social, educational activities) in accordance with ZDDV-1, they do not need to charge VAT on these services and in accordance with ZDDV-1 they are not obliged to identify for VAT purposes (if they perform only those exempt activities in respect of which the right to deduct VAT is not recognised by ZDDV-1).”

Of course, it is understandable that many Slovenian citizens do not know much about all these laws and do not care to find the right answer, so it is not difficult for them to fall for various inn theses about the Church not paying taxes. And it seems that Bratušek is counting on all these “experts” behind the bar to bow to her, who is working so hard for justice in our society. And what is “fair” taxation for Bratušek? Equating the (Catholic) Church (or all religious communities??) with other legal entities and individuals? If she wanted to do this only for the (Catholic) Church, it would be a violation of the Constitution regarding the equality of religious communities. If she wanted to treat all gifts for Mass as a service activity for which VAT is normally charged, then this would be a direct violation of the separation of state and religious communities. Of course, most of the public is not aware of how this demagogic point undermines the constitution.

In the end, I would suggest this: if you have an opportunity to meet Alenka Bratušek, give her e.g., 50 euros (in cash, of course) and thank her for the programme item. I am sure she will accept the gift. Call her in a week and ask if she reported this receipt to the tax office and paid tax on that donation. After all, you paid her 50 euros for a service (programme announcement), so she would have to pay tax on that donation. If she fails to do so, then she is in tax offense. To say the least.

Gašper Blažič is a journalist for Demokracija, editor of its daily board and editor of the Blagovest.si portal.

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