The (widely-respected) Pew Research Center has produced a long and detailed report on the rules for the church tax or fee in those European countries that operate it. “Church taxes” are levied in many European countries; and while in some of them only church members are required to pay a percentage of income to the church to which they belong, in others all taxpayers pay a church tax but have the option of paying it to the state instead of to a religious organisation. The report’s conclusion is in the title: In Western European Countries With Church Taxes, Support for the Tradition Remains Strong.
Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Sweden and some of the Swiss cantons have more-or-less compulsory systems of church tax, the precise details of which vary from country to country. Spain and Portugal have voluntary systems. The report provides both a helpful source of reference for the laws in the various countries that operate any kind of church tax and an interesting analysis of the differences between the various regimes.
Opting out of the church tax in those countries that levy it usually requires the taxpayer formally to resign from the religious group that receives his or her tax payment, though in Italy, for example, every taxpayer contributes to otto per mille (0.8% of tax payments) and the contributions of those do not choose a recipient institution are added into the wider otto per mille pool and divided according to the choices made by the taxpayers who did choose a destination.
The research found that in the six countries with mandatory church taxes for members, those who opt out are more likely than those who say that they pay the tax to believe that religion should be kept separate from the state, while payers are more likely to say that government policies should support religious values and beliefs.
Unsurprisingly, respondents who say that they pay the church tax are more religious than former payers on a variety of measures. That said, however, only about one-third of those who pay the tax in Denmark and Sweden (28% and 29%, respectively) say that religion is at least somewhat important to them. Further, church tax payment does not vary consistently by income, but young adults are less likely to pay it than their elders, and younger payers and those who have been through higher education are more likely to say that they intend to opt out in future.
One issue that the study notes only in passing is that, in some jurisdictions, non-payers may be denied access to certain church services. In Germany, for example, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference has barred those who have left from confession and taking communion and refuses them a religious burial if they show no sign of repentance – a position that was upheld in September 2012 by a ruling of the Federal Administrative Court [Bundesverwaltungsgericht]. Where exclusion may present particular difficulties for non-payers, however, is in rural areas where there are few municipal cemeteries.
According to a 2015 survey by Gallup International and the WI Network of Market Research, Sweden has the second-highest number of non-religious people as a percentage of its population of any country after China: 76 per cent of Swedish respondents said that they were either “not religious” or a “convinced atheists”. Yet, according to the Pew Center study, 68 per cent of Swedes pay the church tax and three-quarters of payers say that they are unlikely to opt out in future. Could it be that – believers or not – they want to make sure that their ashes can be interred in the local Church of Sweden churchyard? It may be pertinent that, unlike the UK, many countries in mainland Europe have strict rules governing how ashes may be treated.
My perception of Finland, the church-tax regime I know best, with high though falling rates of confirmation coupled with low Sunday attendance, is that payment is seen both as an affirmation of national identity and to secure marriage and burial rights.
(It has its downside: a father, politely asked not to stand on the altar to photograph his son’s confirmation, said ‘I pay my church tax: I stand where I like.’)
It is worth noting that the survey does not consider the arrangements in the Channel Islands, where the (civil) parishes assume responsibility for the maintenance of the ancient parish churches and (in some parishes) the rectories. In Guernsey, the funds come from the ratepayers, who vote on the proposed expenditure annually.
From an English perspective, that’s very interesting. In England, there’s an unresolved doubt as to whether or not a (civil) parish can legally give a grant to a church. Some say it can: others say it can’t. My own view (FWIW) is that the situation requires fresh legislation to clarify it.