Today is the deadline for filing an electronic tax return here in Austria, but you’d hardly know it because most tax payers, i.e., employed persons, are not required to file at all: declaring and withholding income and social security taxes are employer responsibilities. As a result, most people don’t file a return; if they do, it is to claim one or several of a limited number of deductions. If members of the Church bother to do it, they will be able to deduct a portion of their tithing—currently capped at EUR 400/year—and that’s about it as far as charitable contributions to the Church are concerned. But fifteen years ago, a local member of the Church blazed the way for an additional deduction related to missionary service.
Of interest, I hope, for an international audience is the way the Church in Austria has defined missionary service as vocational/professional training, which allows members whose children serve missions to claim income tax deductions and retain entitlements (more on entitlements in a future post).
Some background before we proceed. Austria’s legal system is in principal religiously neutral—the state does not identify with a specific church or religious community—and secular—its tasks and objectives are exclusively worldly and non-spiritual. These principles of neutrality and secularity allow a tiny religious minority like Mormonism to, well, if not flourish at least maintain a place at the table.
Freedom of conscience, confession and creed are guaranteed for all, but the state does reserve the right to grant churches and religious communities legal personality under public law, which makes (recognized) churches and the state “partners on an equal footing, each acknowledging the independence and autonomy of the other.” (Source) If you are a member of a non-recognized church, you may worship more or less as you please, but you will not be a partner on equal footing.
In the case of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the state’s counterpart is not Salt Lake City but a local Church Council comprised of a president (one of two stake presidents in Austria), two counselors (the other stake president and a commissioner for interfaith issues) and three other members, one a commissioner for schools and education (a CES guy) and the other two without a portfolio. As far as the state is concerned, the buck stops with the Church Council. If there is a question about practice or doctrine, the Council provides the authoritative answer. The Church Council is of course free to take direction from headquarters, which it does, but it remains the competent authority on the affairs of the Church in Austria.
Attendant rights and privileges of state recognition include “the right to practice communal public worship, arrange and administer their ‘internal’ affairs autonomously, and retain possession and enjoyment of their institutions, endowments and funds; and, moreover, the right to found private confessional establishments for instruction and education and provide religious instruction in state schools […] the expense for such education being borne by the state.” (Source)
The church may designate religion teachers for public schools at its discretion. In practice, however, the Church does not take advantage of this privilege, opting instead to run the seminary program much as it is done in the US by calling lay teachers supported by a CES professional. Nevertheless, the Church Council’s autonomy in administering its internal affairs and the right to provide religious education in state schools does play an important role not only in the spiritual realm but also in matters of taxes and entitlements.
With that in mind, let’s turn to the case at hand. In December 2000, a member filed a tax return for the five previous years during which one or more of his four children had been serving a mission, claiming an existing deduction for “exceptional expenses” related to the “vocational/professional training of children abroad” that would have reduced his income tax burden for the five years by a total of EUR 3467.41. Not a huge amount, but when your effective tax rate starts at 38.3% on income above EUR 10,000, you take what you can get. Anyway, the novelty of the claim—initially rejected by the tax authority of first instance—was that a fulltime mission amounted to vocational or professional training.
In order for to qualify as an “exceptional expense,” expenditures must be for training/education not offered within 80km of the place of residence. In order to qualify as “vocational/professional training,” the law requires “intent to meet the objectives of training and education and to pass the required exams through purposeful effort.” In the view of the local tax office, neither criterion was met: missionary service is neither mandatory nor a prerequisite for becoming an ordained priest or teacher of religion. Moreover, missionary activity does not represent special training for a particular profession but a kind of internship for gaining experience and acquiring knowledge through charity and scripture study.
I’m inclined to agree with this assessment based on my own experience, but the decision was appealed, and the second instance turned to the appellant’s bishop for clarification of the following questions:
- According to internal church norms, what training must be completed by someone in order to be designated as a teacher of religion at a public school?
- If full time missionary service is a prerequisite, how long is this service, where must it be performed and can it can be carried out anywhere, including at home?
The bishop responded by stating that the church does require goal-oriented training of its teachers of religion. The qualifications are determined autonomously by the Church Council and require no further administrative authorization. Criteria include membership in good standing in the Church and a wholesome lifestyle. The Church Council has unanimously determined that no further requirements—particularly pedagogical training—are necessary. The bishop then noted that the Church decides where one serves and that the length of service varies from 18 to 25 months. Furthermore, aspects of the “training” during missionary service that qualify one to teach religion in a public school, include:
- scripture study
- study of secondary literature (e.g., Jesus the Christ, Our Search for Happiness, The Articles of Faith, The Great Apostasy, and A Marvelous Work and a Wonder)
- participation in a weekly two-hour seminar
- social work
- Priesthood and Relief Society meetings attendance
- Sunday school attendance
- instruction of non-members and members
- 90 minutes of language study in non-German-speaking missions
- Four to eight weeks of training at the MTC in Provo, UT
- honorable missionary service, i.e., abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, black tea, pornography, and intimate contact with persons of the same or opposite sex, and being honest in your dealings with others
- honorable release by the Mission President
The second instance felt that its questions had not been fully answered, and so it turned to the Church Council. In its response, the Council “firmly declared” that service as a missionary is a requirement for designation as a teacher of religion. Moreover, the Council distinguished between training to become a missionary, which is completed at the MTC, and training to become a religion teacher, which is the missionary service itself. It reiterated its autonomy in determining the qualifications for teachers of religion, underlined that fulfillment of a fulltime mission qualifies one as a religion teacher and noted that the certificate of honorable release also documented the qualification to teach.
On the basis of these replies, the second instance concluded that
- missionaries could not choose the location of their service, and all of the appellant’s children had served abroad. Thus, the requirement that training/education could not be offered within 80km of the place of residence in order to qualify as an “exceptional expense” was met;
- case law allowed them to view missionary service as “vocational/professional training” provided said service not consist solely of “practical work” but include goal-oriented training in areas relevant to religious education. Since missionary service also includes participation in seminars, Sunday school, scripture study and attendance at various meetings, this condition for “vocational/professional training” was considered met;
- all children possessed the necessary certificate of honorable release qualifying them as teachers of religion;
- the appellant’s petition to be granted income tax deductions for “exceptional expenses” related to the “vocational/professional training of children abroad” should be granted.
So chalk one up for state recognition of religion and the latitude it grants the Church to regulate its internal affairs. Of course, in practice, no one is actually designated as a teacher of religion in public schools because there simply are not enough Mormon pupils at any given school to justify having one. So instead (early morning/online) seminary counts as a school subject and grades are disbursed each semester for school credit. It’s simply a pro forma exercise—all youth, even those who do not attend, receive the equivalent of an “A”—that is, incidentally, totally separate from the Church requirements for seminary graduation. I mean, you can’t just claim to have completed a rigorous seminary program with all its goals and objectives and expect that to count for admission to BYU without having actually done anything–please!