Evangelicals lose appeal to gain donation box on income tax forms

Law allowing Spaniards to assign 0.7% of tax payment to Vatican discriminatory, they argue

The interior of the German Evangelical Church on Madrid’s Paseo de la Castellana.
The interior of the German Evangelical Church on Madrid’s Paseo de la Castellana.ULY MARTÍN

Spain’s High Court has ruled that only the Roman Catholic Church will continue to benefit from an option for taxpayers to allocate 0.7 percent of their annual income tax payment to the institution when filing their yearly return.

Ferede, the federation that represents Spain’s Evangelical churches, had asked the Finance Ministry to extend the same privilege to its member churches, arguing that the current situation violated religious freedom legislation.

Around a third of Spanish taxpayers tick the box assigning funds to the Catholic Church

Spanish tax return forms include a box that can be ticked to donate 0.7 percent of the total tax payment to the Roman Catholic Church. Alternatively, taxpayers can also assign 0.7 per cent “for social uses”.

The Finance Ministry rejected Ferede’s request in January, saying it was not authorized to make such a decision. The Evangelical Church then took the matter to the High Court, which subsequently turned the appeal down.

The Finance Ministry told Ferede that the question was outside its jurisdiction, and that it was not within its remit to decide if taxpayers could put aside part of their income to the Evangelical Church or any other religious organization. The courts took the Tax Agency’s position.

Legal footing

There is no distinction in the content of the agreements that govern the relationship between the state and the Roman Catholic Church and that between the state and minority religions. In both cases, the right of religious freedom is regulated, which is recognized in the Constitution for both people and religious organizations.

But the legal footing of each accord establishes a radically different situation: while agreements with minority religions are regulated by ordinary law, which can be overturned or modified by subsequent laws, the 1979 agreement with the Roman Catholic Church is an international treaty, which can only be altered by the mutual agreement of all parties, or if one accuses the other of non-fulfillment.

The 1979 agreement adapted an arrangement that had existed during the four decades of the military dictatorship of General Francisco Franco with the Catholic Church. In the years following the death of Franco in late 1975, when Spain’s transition to democracy was underway, some political parties on the left had proposed ending the Roman Catholic Church’s privileges.

Experts in ecclesiastical law say that Spanish governments have traditionally been “fearful of social mobilization” by the Catholic Church if it ever saw its funding from tax donations at risk.

“The possibility that the Church would mobilize the faithful holds back any attempts at reforming the situation” they say. From the perspective of defending a secular society, “it’s not about extending the financing of other religions, but to prevent them as far as possible from draining money from public spending that in large measure goes to support religious costs and not social objectives.”

The ministry headed by Cristóbal Montoro explained that the box allowing taxpayers to assign 0.7 percent of their income tax to the Catholic Church is based on an agreement between the Spanish state and the Vatican dating back to 1979, and that a similar arrangement would have to be made between the state and the Evangelical Church, which it, as a ministry, was not authorized to do.

Ferede pointed out that it also has agreements with the Spanish state, and that these should not be essentially different from other similar agreements if they are not to be considered discriminatory, against equality laws, or in violation of other fundamental rights.

The High Court’s judges limited themselves to examining the resolution that denied the Evangelical Church’s request to the Finance Ministry. “The administration has given a motivated reply founded in law, so that said reply, as such, cannot be considered as violating the right of request.”

State agreement required

The ruling points out that in an annex to the 1979 agreement with the Vatican the Spanish state agrees “to collaborate with the Catholic Church in the attainment of adequate economic support, with absolute respect for the principle of religious freedom,” and that it was already anticipated that taxpayers could give to the Catholic Church “a percentage of the tax revenue from income or assets or other personal items by the appropriate technical procedure,” as long as the taxpayer expressively showed this. These agreements have been revised on several occasions. Around a third of Spanish taxpayers tick the box assigning funds to the Catholic Church.

The High Court judges compare the situation with the Agreement on State Cooperation with Federe, signed in 1992. This agreement takes into account the set of tax rules that will govern the assets and acts of the organization, but there is no precept or similar prevision to that included in the agreement between Spain and the Vatican. The document establishes that the agreement can be the subject of a complaint by either of the two signatories.

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The ruling reads: “The conclusion reached is that establishing a fund-raising mechanism for Ferede’s religious ends, like the one the Catholic Church has, must be the result of the existence of an agreement, pact, or accord between the Spanish state and the representative body of the corresponding religion that manages to establish it in this way, without the government, or any government ministry, of the day establishing it unilaterally.”

The judges explain that a 1999 law establishes the mechanisms for modifying or extending the content of pacts that the Spanish state and Ferede could reach, “mechanisms that must be observed to reach the goal the appellant aims for.”

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