Round of applause for Bahk over taxing clergy
Income tax is levied across Korea but has not applied to churches, Buddhist temples and other religious organizations. Strategy and Finance Minister Bahk Jae-wan says this is no longer acceptable.
In a recent interview with the local media, the soft-spoken but opinionated policymaker claimed pastors, priests and monks are not to be excused from tax-paying duties. The ministry is considering rewriting regulations to tax the men of faith, which could be part of its tax bill to lawmakers in coming months, he said.
Bahk’s comments touched off a frenzy of discussions on media outlets and the Internet as taxing the clergy is a sensitive issue the government has been avoiding. The last attempt to address it was six years ago.
``We need to reach a social consensus on this issue quickly, and find the right mix of measures to impose taxes on the income (earned by the clergy).’’
For obvious reasons, and then not so obvious reasons, taxing the clergy continues to be a controversial issue here. So sensitive a subject that finance ministry officials were busy insisting that their boss shouldn’t be taken so seriously.
``Minster Bahk was just talking about principles in theory. There have been no detailed discussions on how and when (to tax the clergy),’’ the ministry said in an emailed statement.
Whatever, finance people. The metaphorical cat is out of the bag.
For journalists, Bahk has always been an interesting man to cover. Most of the time, he frustrates the reporter herd with safe, colorless comments that rarely provide anything more than a firm grasp of the obvious. But he also will occasionally drop a bomb in public opinion, like he just did by mentioning possibly taxing the clergy, as if to see if everybody’s paying attention.
Regular readers are aware that this section of The Korea Times has been frequently critical of Bahk, who has a habit of denying the severity of Korea’s unemployment problem and the erosion in family finances.
On the issue of taxing religious organizations, however, Bahk deserves applause for addressing the elephant in the room. We are happy to back him on this debate, but regret that there’s even a debate.
Really, can the case for taxing religious organizations be anymore clear-cut?
Unless this newspaper has missed something big, and it wouldn’t be the first time it’s been accused of underreporting important developments, Korea remains a secular state. There is no reason pastors, priests, monks and any other person generating income from religious offerings should be above paying taxes, a duty that, at least in theory, is to be shared by every law-abiding citizen.
Besides, lax taxation on the clergy has never been supported by law, but continued for decades anyway using culture and convention as excuses.
Christian and Buddhist leaders in the past have vocally rejected the idea of paying income tax, saying they deserve their tax-free status since their lives are dedicated to the ``selfless serving of others.’’
But there’s an irony in that people who are supposedly committed to making society better have so much trouble accepting the basic individual burden essential for supporting it.
Besides, it’s awkward for Christians and Buddhists to play the selfless card when the Catholic Church has been voluntarily paying income tax since 1994. Reform-minded churches have also supported the idea of pastors paying income tax, a subject now discussed officially in the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK), although their voices still account for the minority.
Taxing religious groups won’t be easy. It bears further watching whether politicians will risk ruffling the feathers of the country’s mighty churches when poll days approach. It’s also uncertain whether President Lee Myung-bak will be willing to give Bahk enough rope to pursue the changes when conservative Christian groups continue to account as its biggest supporter.
It was 2006 when a civic activist filed a complaint against the National Tax Service (NTS), claiming it was neglecting its duty by failing to tax income earned by religious groups. The NTS, in turn, requested the finance ministry review the feasibility of taxing religious groups. However, the ministry has been delaying the decision amid fierce resistance by Christian and Buddhist leaders.
However, as Bahk has clearly noticed, a consensus appears to be building that the tax exemption needs to be abolished. A recent poll by the Korea Institute for Religious Freedom showed that 65 percent of the 1,000 respondents agreed that tax should be equally levied on religious groups.