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Opinions Sat, 26 Dec 2009

Re: The Church Must Pay Tax Now!!

Yaw Opare-Asamoa

oasamoa@gmail.com

I was not in the least surprised when I saw the ‘headline’. This is not the first time that such a call has been made. It seems to me that anytime we, as a people, run out of ideas we grab for the ‘easy and safe’ targets. The church has always been a target for many people. To some extent I do understand where these people are coming from: the opulence that is displayed by some of these churches put a serious ‘blight’ on the whole gospel business. So when one looks at all the extravagant lifestyles of some of the so-called ministers-of-God, one is tempted to conclude that there is something ‘missing’. In light of the economic situation and the apparent inability of policy-makers to widen the tax brackets the Church then becomes the obvious choice. In choosing the Church to tax, no serious thinking would be required; there would not be any ‘ordinary-man-on-the-street’ cries from those who pretend to care so much about the poor; and there would be popular support for it. No risks to any political fortunes in any future elections.

Some of us have for so long advocated spreading of the tax bracket. We all do recognize the fact that in Ghana, the proportion of those who pay taxes to those who don’t is woefully disproportionate. Basically only those in the formal sector bear the brunt of taxpaying in Ghana. If we are really interested in building a just and equitable society then each of us should be required to put in our fair share. And this has nothing to do with whether one is poor or rich. Taxation could be structured in a way that each pays according to how much each ‘earns’. The question then becomes how does the government ascertain how much is earned by those in the informal sector-farmers, fisherfolk, roadside-tabletop traders etc. That is where the problem has always been and government after government has failed to come up with a workable solution. I guess it is too much work for these government officials to sit down and think through this and provide some ingenious solutions.

The policy to exempt the Church from paying taxes is not unique to Ghana. The rationale has been that the Church provides social services and amenities within their communities and by that contribute to the development of the country. Indeed there are so many practical examples to cite: the schools and hospitals built and run by churches; job and skill training centres and other amenities scattered all over the country. Some churches are into Agriculture, contributing their bit towards food security. I cannot list all the church has done and continues to do on these pages but I know their ‘works’ are evident for all to see.

By the way, is the Church the only religious institution in Ghana? And just how did the writer arrive at his decision? The writer says Churches and their leaders should be made to pay taxes to “validate their presence in national life”. That presupposes that those not paying taxes cannot ‘validate their presence in national life’! And by extrapolation, if one cannot validate one’s presence in national life then one need not be part of national life, to wit better drop dead! Wow! That is an interesting thought. The Church does not need the paying of taxes to validate its presence in national life. The Church’s presence in national life, I believe, is clearly visible and is already validated.

The writer continues thus “We are at a point where we must deal firmly with the Church as one of the ubiquitous institutions that rake in money and play a major role in our national life but deny the State the revenue that it needs to provide social amenities for the citizens.” So suddenly, for some reason the Church is the reason or part of the reason why the State cannot provide social amenities for the citizens? What happened to the culture of corruption that is so much perpetuated by politicians and other public officials who steal millions from the State? What about the misappropriation of funds all over the place? The average Ghanaian seeks all available avenues to dodge paying taxes; the little that does go into the Consolidated Fund also gets squandered by our politicians. This is where the problem lies and not with the Church. The very Church that is being accused of being responsible for the State’s inability to cater for its citizens happens to provide many of these amenities. So how is the Church responsible for that? There are so many towns and villages in this country that would have been without any school at all (at the basic level) were it not for the services that the Church provides. In so many villages around Ghana, the only schools available are Presbyterian, Methodist or Catholic!!

The writer also claims that his decision to target the church is apparently because the church is so “noticeable because of its tendency to attract money into its coffers for which it doesn’t account to the State” Well, in Ghana we do have other religious institutions besides the Church: there are the Mosques and other Islamic organizations; and also the Traditional worshippers and their Fetishes. We do accept, in Ghana, that all these different expressions of religion should be treated equally. If that is the case why is the Church being singled out? I stand corrected but I do believe that the Islamic organizations are also exempted from paying taxes. And I have not heard anywhere that the various Fetishes are required to pay taxes. If that is the case then the Church alone cannot be charged with the task of paying taxes! And what about the Freemasons and the Grand United Order of Oddfellows (popularly known as Lodge)? They are also forms of religious expression, I believe.

Now with the charge against the Church for being able to ‘attract money into its coffers’, why should that be a basis for a national Taxation policy? Do the Mosques not have the tendency to also attract money? Is it not the choice of the individual worshippers to do what they want with their money?

The writer says he does not seek to “question anybody’s religious faith or to damn any religion” and that his “emphasis is on the role of the Church in national life and how that role should be appraised, especially in terms of taxation”. That is all well and good but then he goes on to say “The Church cannot deny its role in dividing the ranks of the people. Ghana is at the crossroads and has reached a point where firm and resolute decisions have to be made and enforced to free the citizens from the charlatans parading as redeemers and miracle workers”. That is where I find his submission a bit intriguing. As I have tried to point out, this issue cannot be treated as a Church-alone thing. It is a religious issue and it should involve all the religious groupings and institutions. Yes it is true that some churches are guilty of creating divisions among the people; and yes it is also true we do have some of these church leaders ‘parading as redeemers and miracle workers’, but is the Church the only place where such exist?

When every death in the family has to be ‘explained’ as the result of another family member’s evil machinations, are the Fetishes not contributing to ‘dividing the ranks of the people’? What about the roles of the ‘mallams’ and the other ‘jujumen’? Why did the writer just focus on ‘charlatans parading as redeemers and miracle workers’ in the Church?

The Church just does not come by money. Members of these institutions ‘donate’ with the understanding that the monies donated would be put to specific purposes. Some donate so their local congregation can put up a chapel or build a manse. Another time it may be for the putting up of a new school or additional classrooms for an already existing school. I have personally donated for such projects.

The writer also made the following comments: “Some churches have investments (transport business, buying-and-selling, imports and exports, etc) and reap the benefits without paying anything to the State just because they operate under the banner of the Bible or represent themselves as charitable organizations, which they are not.” Indeed some Churches do operate transport businesses but they do operate under the regulations of the GPRTU. They do pay all the necessary and required fees and levies. They are not exempted because they are church-based. Again if a church is engaged in imports and exports, that could be a separate matter. We can always open up a debate as to whether businesses operated by churches should pay taxes or not. I personally would not have any problem with that at all. If a church has an import and export business surely that business should pay the required taxes. To me, that is a whole different matter than just saying the Church should pay taxes. The Church is not a business but the Church can operate a business.

As I said earlier, we can open up the debate but the businesses to be taxed should be clearly identified and delineated from the normal operations of the Church.

Believe me; I do share the writer’s disgust at the opulent and ostentatious lifestyles of some of these church leaders but I do not believe that should form the basis of a national tax policy!! The deceit of some churchfolk by their leaders is of great concern. I believe the writer would have served us better if he had separated the tax issue from the questionable behavior of some church leaders. As it is, he sounds like suggesting that these Church leaders do what they do because the Church does not pay taxes; and somehow once the Church is roped in, somehow the opulent lifestyles and clear abuses would vanish. I don’t share that belief.

I also do not think that the State is not meeting its obligations to the citizens because the Church is not being taxed. Ghana now is about to enjoy Oil money and already the politicians are salivating about the prospects that would be available to them. Suddenly everybody believes the Oil Find will solve all our problems. We couldn’t solve our problems with Cocoa money; Timber money was not enough apparently; Gold and the other minerals could not provide the answers either; but somehow we believe Oil would do it. Even though the stories of Nigeria and other Oil-producing African countries clearly tell us otherwise; we do believe that we are different. I hope to God that is the case but the truth is Oil money or not, if the systemic ‘structural defects’ (corruption at all levels) are not corrected nothing would ‘save’ us.

Written and submitted on December 23, 2009
Columnist: Opare-Asamoa, Yaw