[Op-Ed] There is No Sacred Ground for National Tax Service
For the better application of tax justice
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The Korean government has been trying to legislate the taxation of religious workers since 1968. However, due to various reasons, the legislation was dismissed several times. Now, after 50 years, the taxation for religious practitioners is waiting to be enforced starting next year. This specific article introduces the history of the legislation and current controversies, along with the expected results.
How has it been so far
Taxing religious practitioners is not as surprising as some might think. Major countries such as the United States, Germany, Canada, and Japan have all been collecting tax money from religious workers. Even in Korea, some religions or a specific subgroup of a religion have been encouraging a voluntary tax payment. For example, monks in the Chogye Order (a branch of Buddhism) are paying income tax as a form of withholding tax, and priests and nuns in the Catholic church have been paying taxes since 1983. Not all protestant churches are against the taxation, too. Workers in the Full Gospel Incheon Church started paying taxes as early as 1983, and some others joined the wave.
As mentioned above, many of the religious workers have been partially or fully bearing the tax duty despite the fact that there was no law enforcement. Therefore, the expected amount of increased tax is only 8 billion won, which is 0.01% of Korea’s 70 trillion won annual tax income. There have also been voices stating that because many of the religious practitioners do not make the minimal income, there is a high possibility of spending more than earning on subsidizing them. If a family does not own more than 140 million won and the annual salary is below 25 million in the case of a double income family, and 21 million for single income, the government provides EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit) to the family up to 2.5 million won per year. If many of the religious workers’ incomes do not reach the minimum income as some have speculated, there is a plausibility of more tax money being spent.
Most of the opposing voices come from the conservative Protestant church unions, namely The Christian Council of Korea. Several religious associations are part of this council, and the council used to be the biggest protestant consultative body until PCK (The Presbyterian Church of Korea) left the council. The Council is currently standing against the legislation for two main reasons. First, they view the work of religious practitioners, not as labor, but as more of a spiritual volunteer service. Therefore, the ‘income’ they make is more of a gratitude payment that should not be applied with secular rules. Moreover, some believe that through the annual report of the priests’ salary, the government will be able to legitimize a tax audit against religious groups, which is an invasion of religious liberty. Although these assertions are winning a minority of support, these opinions have their own flaws that can be tackled with.
Then why should we levy the burden?
Some might ask, then why is the Ministry of Strategy and Finance, or the politicians trying to impose a tax on the religious workers? And the answer to that question is simply the principle of fair taxation. In the Korean Constitution, article 38, it says, “All citizens shall have the duty to pay taxes under the conditions as prescribed by the Act.” A principle should have no exceptions to become a social consensus. Especially when the constitution explicitly mentions that, “All citizens shall have the duty to pay taxes,” and religious workers should have no exception.
Kim So-yun firstname.lastname@example.org
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