September 22, 2014

In some European countries, church membership means paying more taxes

European Countries With Church TaxesAn increasing number of Germans – Protestant and Catholic alike – are leaving their churches, according to statistics compiled by The Wall Street Journal. Among the reasons cited for the decrease in membership is an unwillingness to pay a de facto increase in Germany’s church tax, which is collected by the government from registered members of churches to fund those religious organizations.

The fact that church taxes even exist might surprise Americans, as the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment prohibits the government from collecting taxes for religious groups. But last year, Germany reportedly collected $13.2 billion in revenue for churches.

Many other European countries have their own religious taxes. In several cases, such taxes are voluntary and only paid by official registered members of certain churches. In other countries, taxpayers have the option to divert a certain percentage of their income to either a religious group or the state. In many cases, the churchgoer pays the tax as part of their personal income taxes and the government passes the money along to the church. A few examples:

  • In Italy, taxpayers pay an “eight per thousand” tax (0.8%) and express their preference for whether the money should go to one of the religious groups listed (including the Catholic Church, several Protestant groups and the Jewish community) or the state.
  • Spanish law “provides taxpayers the option of allocating a percentage of their income tax to the Catholic Church but not to other religious groups,” according to the U.S. State Department.
  • The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark – the country’s national church – receives funding through a specific church tax imposed on members and also receives additional support from the Danish government. Denmark reports that nearly 80% of its people were church members as of 2012.
  • Two other northern European countries – Sweden and Finland – also collect church taxes from members, both at rates that range from 1% to 2%.
  • In Switzerland, church taxes are imposed at the canton level; most of the 26 cantons, or states, collect a church tax in some form. In some cantons, private companies must pay a church tax, according to the State Department, which also reports that some cantons collect taxes “on behalf of the Jewish community,” but that “Islamic and other ‘nontraditional’ religious groups are not eligible.”
  • Iceland’s church taxes are collected from members of registered religious groups – including secular humanist organizations.

In some of these countries, there are churches that will only serve those who have paid up. For instance, the Catholic Church in Germany has forbidden those who do not pay their church taxes from receiving communion.

Topics: Religion and Government, Religion and Society, Western Europe

  1. Photo of Michael Lipka

    is a senior editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.

10 Comments

  1. Peter Potts7 months ago

    It’s a massive con given that there is no scientific evidence for the existence of God. I feel sorry for the fooled.

  2. Kr B12 months ago

    Just saying norwegian, sweedish and danish systems are flawed and people are generaly put into member registery just after beeing born allmost by default. Getting out of it on a later date usualy requires a very formal letter.. lucky that some services that has appeard in later years will help members getting out.. but still its bit of a hassle.

  3. Lars B2 years ago

    There are a number of flaws to the Swedish system.

    If You are on social welfare the amount of money You get is based on your income after taxes. That means that the social welfare de facto pays the church membership for members in the thirteen (12 Christian an 1 Muslim) “churches” that uses the government to collect membership fees today. For any other church or organization the people who gets welfare money must pay them self.

    On top of this the Catolic Church has registered people as members who are not. Over thirteen thousand swedes have been forced to fight the tax authorities to avoid the Catholic Church tax (approx. 2000-4000 SEK annually in most cases)

  4. Jea2 years ago

    It might be harder to evangelize atheists if they know they’ll have to pay more money in taxes as Catholics, and greedy agnostics might also leave the Church.

  5. Paolo2 years ago

    Correction: in Italy taxpayers may or may not devolve 8 per thousand of their total assessed dues, to the religious establishment they belong to as listed. The amount is therefore part of the payable total tax.
    If they do not sign for their option, the .8% is retained by the state to finance non denominational social projects.

  6. sean2 years ago

    How is selling the sacraments, as in Germany, not the sin of simony?

    you pay your tax, you get Communion, baptism, etc.
    You dont pay your tax, you don’t get your sacraments.

  7. Pedro2 years ago

    I wonder how the United Kingdom funds the Church of England. Some priests actually have seats on the House of Lords in the Parliament.

  8. Dr. Shankara Prasad2 years ago

    When European governments fund Churches to the tune of billions of dollars, is this an indirect way to support spread of Christianity and conversion of citizens of developing world?
    Are the Churches held accountable for how they spend the money they receive from the Governments and is this information available to citizens?
    It is interesting that no political group has taken it in their manifesto to oppose this tradition.

    1. Mac2 years ago

      I think you have misunderstood. In almost all of these cases mentioned the church tax is only payable by the members of the respective church. Non-members do not pay the tax. So yes the government helps out with the collection of membership fees which might be subject to discussion but it normally doesn’t mean that the churches are funded by the government.

  9. muhammad bin tulla2 years ago

    Zakat is a far better system than govt. imposing tax on people. Allah hu akbar