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Germany

Quelling the Flight from the Church (Tax)

Germans can lower their taxes by leaving their church. Now a Christian Democratic politician has proposed incentives for church tax payers, in the hopes that people will stop leaving in droves.

Millions of Germans have left the church in the past decade

Christian Böhr took advantage of the Easter holiday, when the churches enjoy throngs of visitors, to announce that the growing number of people opting out of the Christian churches was an ominous development that had to be stopped.

"Leaving the church should not be a scheme to save taxes," the Christian Democratic party's deputy chairman proclaimed Monday. Böhr proposed that Germans be offered tax incentives so they will stay in the church. He said Catholics and Protestants should be allowed to deduct 20 percent of the church tax they pay from their income tax.

The government should examine his proposal, which could save easily taxpayers around €100 ($119) per year, Böhr said. The state would profit from giving church taxpayers a break. "The churches run numerous kindergartens, hospitals, schools or social stations." If the churches lost funding, they would be forced to close such institutions, Böhr claimed.

State collection plate

Church tax in Germany means that Germans fund the country's Christian churches whether they donate to the collection plate or not. But taxpayers can already deduct the payments on their tax declarations as expenses.

Germans pay 8 to 9 percent of their income tax if they are members in one of the recognized religious communities. Most Germans are born into the Catholic or Protestant Church. They start paying church tax as soon as they start working; parents pay church tax on their children's behalf.

Bishops in the Cologne Cathedral

In 2002, the churches received €3.35 billion ($4.02 billion) in church tax revenue.

The German state agreed long ago with the Catholic and Protestant Churches that it would collect the levy and pass it on to them, and the state's right do so is even laid out in Germany's constitution.

Other religious communities can also claim a piece of the pie, as long as they are registered as statutory bodies and recognized by the individual German states, which are responsible for collecting the tax.

In Berlin, the Old Catholic Church, which split from Roman Catholicism in the late 19th century, also receives tax revenues from its members, and in other German states confessions such as Judaism get church tax money, Berlin Senate spokesman Matthias Kolbeck told DW-WORLD.

Leaving the lap of the church

The only way people can avoid paying the levy is by officially getting out of the church and that's exactly what thousands of people do each year. Only 63.8 percent of the 82 million people in Germany are members of the Roman Catholic or Protestant Church, and the numbers have been dropping dramatically for years. In 2002 over 119,000 people got out of the Roman Catholic Church. The most recent figures from the Protestant church show that nearly 172,000 members opted out in 2001. From 1992 to 2001 almost 1.4 million people became former Catholics and nearly 2.4 million Germans left Protestantism.

But not everyone who leaves the church is just out to save taxes. The Badische Neueste Nachrichten newspaper commented on Böhr's proposal: "The 300,000 Christians who turned their back on the two big Christian churches…didn't all leave because of church tax, but frequently for other reasons: Many view the church, especially the Catholic church, as strangely out-of-touch."

And for years, critics of the tax have said that it should be transformed into a levy to benefit culture in general. "A culture tax that everyone had to pay would be fairer in every way -- potentially with the requirement that the taxpayer can designate which statutory body should receive the money," the Nürnberger Zeitung paper wrote.

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