(MADRID) Although they have rented it out to a restaurant forthe past five years, the owners of one building in Aspe have neverpaid property tax. Nor have they ever paid tax on the apartmentsthat house two of their employees. But that may be about to change.Last week, the city’s government voted to partially rescindthe exemption that the Catholic Church , landlord of those three properties and another eight more intown, has long enjoyed. And thanks to the crisis that threatens toupend Spain ‘s economy, it’s not the only place demanding change. Three different laws, including a 1979 agreement with the Vatican,exempt the Catholic Church from paying property tax in Spain.
Thesame provision holds for other recognized religions and non-profitorganizations like the Red Cross, yet because Catholicism is thedominant religion in Spain, and because the Church’s holdingsthere are so vast (Espa a Laica, a pro-secularism group,estimates that were it not for the exemption, the church wouldannually owe 2.5 to 3 billion euros in property taxes), criticshave long argued that the arrangement is part of the preferentialtreatment granted the Catholic Church. It’s only now,however, with austerity measures bearing down and a European bailout looming, that anyonehas thought to put that criticism into action. Economic pressure,in other words, may well accomplish what 33 years of democracy havenot. (PHOTOS: The New Castles of Spain: Victims of the Euro Crisis) “With the crisis, we all have to tighten our belts,”says David Cerd n, the Socialist Party councilman in Aspe who,together with a colleague from the United Left party, presented themotion to abolish the exemption.
“Our sense of socialjustice, which I believe Catholicism shares, tells us that thosewho have the most should help those who have the least.” In Aspe, a town of roughly 20,000 inhabitants located in thesoutheastern province of Alicante, the measure applies only tothose holdings that are not strictly devoted to religious practiceor to social services. Of the 11 properties that the church owns,only three a storefront that houses a restaurant and the twoparish priests’ homes would be subject to the tax, whichCerd n estimates would annually bring an additional 7,000 eurosinto the municipal coffers. “This doesn’t have to dowith God,” Cerd n says, rejecting claims thatanti-clericalism is motivating the change. “This has to dowith problems on earth.” (MORE: The Pain in Spain: A Banking Scandal Makes the Crisis NoJoke) At least some of that money cannot be collected unless nationallaws change. Welding Rotator
Clergy housing including the grand palaces in whichmany bishops live along with sanctuaries, seminaries, andmonasteries and convents are explicitly protected by the Vaticanconcordat and other legislation. “The constitution declaresthe country ‘non-denominational,'” says AlejandroTorres, professor of ecclesiastic law at the Public University ofNavarra. “But out of historical precedent, our lawmakers havepreserved some of the church’s privileges.” Many Catholic schools and hospitals, for example, are subsidized bythe State and each year, citizens have the option to dedicate 0.7%of their income tax to the Catholic Church (they may also choosethat the same amount go to unspecified “socialservices” or be divided between both). In 2010, the churchearned 248 million euros from income tax returns. But hard times have a way of changing even the most entrenchedpractices. Electric Plate Compactor Manufacturer
In May, the opposition Socialist Party pledged to changethe legislation that guarantees the church’s property taxprivileges and asked its officers in municipal governmentsthroughout the country to introduce motions that would takeadvantage of loopholes in the existing laws. Like Aspe, Alcal deHenares, a city of 204,000 about an hour north of Madrid, and tinyAmoeiro, in northwestern Galicia, have decided to bill taxes onproperties that aren’t explicitly mentioned in the Concordat,such as those that the church rents out or that aren’t beingused at all. In Amoeiro’s case, the municipal government haseven put a date on when the tax must be paid: July 20. Others, likethe city of Zamora in central Spain, will begin billing for trashcollection a charge the church has avoided until now. (TIME MAGAZINE: The Vanguard of Disaster) Church representatives, including Cardinal Antonio Mar a Rouco,head of Spain’s Council of Bishops, have stated publicly thatthey will comply with their legal obligations. China Electric Power Trowel
But Rouco alsosuggested that a change in the tax regimen “would have adetrimental effect on other possible actions, like Caritas,”the Church’s charitable organization. The governing PopularParty (PP), which opposes a change, agrees with him. “TheCatholic church fulfills a very important social function inSpain,” says Manuel Cobo, the PP’s secretary generalfor local policy. “Especially in extreme situations like thiscrisis, religious organizations offer critical assistance to ourmost underprivileged citizens.” Cobo doesn’t believe that the Socialist Party’scampaign to overturn the exemption is truly motivated by economicconcerns.
“The Socialists were in power for the last eightyears. Why didn’t they do away with the exemptionthen?” he asks. “They’re only doing it nowbecause they think it will win them votes. It’s an electoralstrategy.” (MORE: Spanish Voters Turn to the Conservatives to Cure the Crisis) If so, it may not be a bad one.
A poll conducted by Metroscopia andreleased earlier this week shows that 80% of Spaniards surveyed including 61% of PP voters believed the Church should payproperty tax. And some of those towns that are currently takingaction, like Zamora, are governed by the PP. “The crisis hashelped us all remember that we are a non-denominationalnation,” says law professor Torres, “Without a statereligion.”.