Thomas Bores is not religious. He was christened in the Catholic church during his first year on earth, like the overwhelming majority of babies in France. When his parents asked him at age six whether he wanted to go to catechism, he said no, and that was the end of his religious life. Or so he thought.
Decades later when Mr. Bores moved to Berlin, in 2013, he checked the box for “not religious” on his registration form. Two years later, he noticed €550 was missing from his bank account. He asked the payroll department at the company he worked for and was told the tax office had identified him as Roman Catholic and had billed him for back church taxes.
Though Germany is — culturally — one of the most secular nations in Europe, the churches have a lot of government-endorsed financial clout. Members of a recognized confession pay an additional 8 or 9 percent of their annual income tax to that church. And by “member” the authorities mean anyone who has been christened or baptized. The money is automatically deducted just like payroll taxes or social insurance. People are thus on the hook to their church until they formally renounce their membership with an official declaration made in person at a district court that comes with a filing fee of about €30.
“What church are you leaving?” The judge asked. “I don’t care, any of them,” Mr. Frerk replied.
When I arrived in Berlin last year from the United States, I checked the box for “konfessionslos” (not religious) as I registered. That was the end of it, I thought. A few weeks later I received an official-looking letter from the “church-tax office” (Kirchensteuerstelle). It said they needed clarification about my religious affiliation.
The questionnaire, which included my tax number and was posted from the same address as my district tax office, asked for intrusive details about my life. Was I ever baptized or christened? If so, where and when? Had I ever been married in the church? If so, where and when? Was I a member of any free church? I was taken aback by the idea of having to share such personal information.
After digging online, I discovered that this church-tax office is not an actual government agency, and the letter is a deceptive initiative to snare potential church taxpayers. Any person who acknowledges they were baptized or otherwise involved in a church who cannot show paperwork proving they officially left the church is considered to still be a member in Germany and thereby liable for church taxes and back taxes.
Although church membership has been dropping in Germany — down by more than 14 percent between 2001 and 2016 — church tax income is actually up 35 percent. Part of that increase is explained by high employment and a prosperous middle class, says Carsten Frerk, a researcher of church-government ties. But part of it has to do with the authorities zeal in adding new residents to the tax rolls simply for once having been christened or baptized. The Berlin church-tax authorities are especially diligent about tracking down newcomers.
Mr. Frerk describes the German government’s relationship with the church as “intimate.” It’s symbiotic: The tax agency receives about 3 percent of the church income tax as a fee for collecting it. That was about €150 million in 2016.
Mr. Bores, the French citizen, determined, with the help of a lawyer, that the church-tax office in Berlin had written a misleading letter to his old diocese in France, which had replied with a copy of his christening certificate. And that was enough for the Catholic diocese of Berlin to claim him as a member.
This surely must violate privacy laws, I thought, and I found a report on the topic from Berlin’s data-protection official. This 2016 review concluded that because the church-tax offices are not official government agencies, and their employees work for the church, they are not subject to government data-protection laws — even though they are housed in government buildings and receive data from a government agency.
If a person receives the dubious questionnaire that I got, “You can throw it in the trash, because the church has no way to force you to fill it out,” Mr. Frerk says.
German politicians are usually quite open about what religion they belong to. But when Mr. Frerk sent a letter to Andreas Vosskuhle, the president of the Federal Constitutional Court, asking about his confession, a spokesman declined to answer, saying that religious identity was one of the most personal things about a person. Meanwhile, the court has ruled on numerous occasions that the inclusion of a person’s religious status on tax forms does not violate constitutional law.
Many Germans are leaving the church just to opt out of the taxes, which rankles religious leaders. A single person earning €60,000 a year in Berlin would pay about €1,500 of that in church tax. But leaving the church means more than skipping Sunday services. In Germany and Switzerland, leaving the church is a formal affair, requiring an appointment at a local government agency, sometimes a district court. (Kirchenaustritt.de explains the procedures, in German only.)
That brings us back to the Catch-22 of having to exit a church of which you don’t even consider yourself a member. Expats who were once christened or baptized but are not religious or left the church long ago end up filing a formal exit just to make the problem go away.
The problem also hits Germans. Many of those formerly from the communist East at one point found themselves paying church taxes because the documents related to their religious status did not survive the bureaucratic transfers after reunification.
Even Mr. Frerk, the church-tax expert, got into trouble. He was never baptized, never had anything to do with the church, but suddenly received a pay stub that identified him as Protestant. How do you prove a negative? The tax office wanted him to collect letters from every town he’d ever lived in to prove his non-religious status.
So he argued with officials for months before realizing what would solve the problem. He went before a judge to declare his exit. “What church are you leaving?” The judge asked. “I don’t care, any of them,” Mr. Frerk replied. With the official papers in hand, he went back to the tax office. Shortly thereafter he received a letter from the church-tax office, saying, “If you were able to leave the church, that must mean you were a member. We would like you to now pay us the back taxes.”
Mr. Bores’ lawyer also advised that he pay the €30 to officially leave the Catholic Church in Germany even though he had never been a practicing Catholic in France. The exit took another three months to be processed. During that time he remained liable for church taxes. Mr. Bores is still fighting in court to get back his €550.
Grace Dobush is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org