EDITORIAL COMMENT: Churches not exempt from tax laws

Mr Pasi

Mr Pasi

Taxing churches and ministers of religion has long been legally possible, but not very useful in the past since there were no profits made by churches to tax and the income of many religious leaders was too low to attract much in the way of income tax.

Some churches and religious ministers considered they were exempt from tax laws, which has never been the case, and some have not bothered to keep the proper records needed by the tax authorities.

We hope that the legislative changes being sought by zimra Commissioner-General Gershem Pasi will centre on this crucial need for proper records so tax liabilities can be assessed.

Many churches do, of course, have such proper records.

They are required by those with hierarchies and by all churches who rely on gifts and offerings from parishioners and members to function.

And in general these records show that what churches get they spend.

Even when surpluses or careful investment decisions have been made, and income producing investments bought or built, the income is still not profit but rather is spent on running the church.

So it is unlikely that even with universally good records that zimra will be able to get any tax from churches, unless they want the people organising a cake sale to charge VAT, and that seems a bit extreme.

The position will be different with the ministers of religion. All full time bishops, priests, religious ministers, pastors and the like have some income, otherwise they could not survive, and if you have income above the tax-free threshold you need to pay income tax.

Of course, this income comes under different names, but in the end it is income.

For many the income is lower than what they could expect in a secular life, it is well-recorded and presumably already attracts income tax if it exceeds the thresholds.

But there are some whose income, in cash and kind, is well-above the threshold and it is here that there might well be under-reporting and non-reporting of income.

There are also some decisions that have to be made over benefits. If an Anglican parish funds a car driven by their priest does that create a private benefit, or is the car simply a way the priest can get to his parishioners when needed?

There are rules, created to deal with the similar position in the business world and presumably zimra can deal with this with existing rules.

Evangelical churches round the world have come in for criticism over record keeping and pastors’ income.

As each congregation is independent, at least in financial matters, there is more room for dubious decisions.

But there is a large segment of this branch of Christianity that is financially responsible.

Pastors are on flat salaries, that are approved by at least the seniors of congregation, and all payments and revenue are carefully accounted for.

The late Rev Billy Graham was one of the leaders of the movement for proper accounts and salaried pastors.

He also declared his income from salary, book royalties and the like, claimed his deductions like any other citizen and then paid his resulting taxes.

But there are churches where the offerings are collected in a bag, essential payments made and the rest shoved in a pastor’s pocket, without anyone else knowing what was collected, what was paid and what is now in the pocket.

The tax authorities are entitled to know.

It is this that needs to change.

So it is not so much churches that will be taxed. Most do not show a profit as a church.

But where zimra might well find an extra source of revenue is examining what the church does spend its income on, and where this is spent on providing an income or benefits for someone then that someone has to fill in tax forms, just like the rest of us.

But for zimra to assess where the money is spent, and for zimra to decide how much income tax a minister of religion should pay, it must have accurate records.

Legally non-profit organisations must have such records and we see no reason why churches should be exempt, and all residents of Zimbabwe are obliged to record their income, or have someone else such as their employer do this for them.

So what is desired is not anything really new.

The legal basis for zimra’s proposals largely exists, although there might be need for additional rules to ensure every source of income or benefit is moved into the taxable or non-taxable baskets.

We predict that a zimra audit of most churches and ministers of religion will produce no extra tax.

But there are areas where obviously it will.

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