The 2017 Presidential Election marked the most recent effort to postpone the implementation of a law that will mandate the taxation of religious workers in South Korea. While the bill should take effect come January 2018, most candidates, including President Moon Jae In, entertained the idea of delaying it for a few additional years. Similarly, previous attempts to rectify this oversight have either been shot down or glossed over by the National Tax Service (NTS). If only to root out religious corruption and reinstate equality under the law, the new administration must tax religious workers.
“All citizens are bound to the duty of taxation as determined by the law,” states the constitution of the Republic of Korea. However, there is a notable exception to this rule. Despite receiving up to 40 million won per year, priests, monks and other religious workers are not beholden to any form of income tax. Many have called for religious workers’ taxation; even followers of religion perceive the exemption as unreasonable and unjustified. Yet the NTS has been constantly presenting the public with implausible reasons for why the status quo must be preserved, postponing at every turn the implementation of policies that would restore equality among taxpayers.
Exactly why are religious workers not taxed in South Korea? The reasons given by the NTS are twofold—exempting religious workers from taxation is a long-held tradition, and even if they were to be taxed, their wealth would not count as income. The rationale that religious workers should not be taxed due to an illusory tradition is preposterous and blatantly transgresses against the constitutional ideal that all men should be equal under the law. Self-evidently, such a toxic tradition cannot be allowed to continue flaunting the constitutional right to equality of taxation.
It is trickier to challenge the argument that religious workers’ wealth transcends the traditional standards of income. Most religious workers make a living off the generous provisions they receive from ardent believers, which begs the question of whether donations can be considered income or wage earnings. While the NTS held to the position that religious workers’ wealth is neither, vocal demands from the Korean Federation of Taxpayers and other individuals have convinced the NTS to place it under the category of “other income,” separate from “wage earnings.” Thus, the NTS itself has accepted that religious workers can be taxed, albeit at a lower rate than others.
There is no more reason to tolerate religious workers’ tax exemption than tax evasion. Exempting religious workers from taxation implies that they belong above everyone else. As such, imposing income tax on religious workers sends the corrective message that they were enjoying an unwarranted advantage. It could also serve as a first step toward rooting out religious corruption. In South Korean religious communities, religious workers are conferred almost limitless authority, the problems of which manifest in the form of sexual predation and the backscratching of religion and politics. In this context, taxing religious workers would signify that politicians can no longer wring favors out of religious workers by granting them unconstitutional privileges or turning a blind eye to their illicit exploits.
The 2017 Presidential Election has long since come to a close, but its implications are still keenly felt. Disappointingly, most candidates hesitated to guarantee equality of taxation between religious workers and those serving in other vocations. When politicians delay the implementation of a policy instead of reaping its immediate and visible benefits, their actions come off as an appeasement ploy, as nothing more than a means to gather votes from religious workers and believers. President Moon must see that the votes he receives by putting off the taxation of religious workers are transient, but the policy’s long-run yields are not.