Govt. pride on the line with C.C.C.S. winning round one of tax battle

Round one to the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa (C.C.C.S.). But this bout folks is far from over, if anything, it’s just getting started.

That much we know about the ongoing battle between Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa’ilele Malielegaoi’s administration and the biggest denomination in Samoa over the taxing of Church Ministers’ alofa. 

After the Ministry of Revenue charged more than 40 Ministers of the C.C.C.S., the District on Thursday dismissed the charges against the first 20 Ministers.  

The decision was handed down by District Court Judge, Leota Raymond Schuster, who ruled that the prosecution team, made up of the Ministry for Revenue lawyers, Alesana Tumua and Dominic Talouli, failed to identify the defendants as “ministers of religion".

With that, Judge Leota granted an application by the Church Ministers through their lawyer, Alex Su’a, that they had no case to answer. Subsequently all the charges against Tautiaga Senara, Tunumoso Iosia, Faasalafa Vitaoa, Faaiuga Matautia, Faraimo Ti’iti’I, Fili Matalavea, Fuaao Fuimaono, Iese Uele, Ioane Petaia, Lavilavi Soloi, Amosa Reupena, Elefatu Lesa, Poasa Toiaivao, Petaia Leavai, Pita Toleafoa, Siaosi Salesulu, Seilala Luamanuvae, Semikueva Faatoafa, Taise Ioapo and Tavita Anesone were dismissed.

Everyone will have an opinion about the ruling.

But at a quick glance, the Court’s decision seems to have been made on a very technical legal point about the identification of the defendants as ministers of religion. Whatever that means, the simple truth is that all the defendants are indeed Church Ministers, therefore making them ministers of religion.

But that’s a legal point, which we are likely to hear a lot more about in the coming months.  We say this because we know it will be a long time before this matter is settled. Which is sad, don’t you think?

In the meantime, the C.C.C.S. is taking Judge Leota’s ruling as a victory. And rightly so. For the Church’s General Secretary, Reverend Vavatau Taufao, who has become the face of the Church’s opposition to the tax law, he said the decision supports their position to oppose the Government’s law.

“The outcome shows that we have the support of the Court and stands that church ministers should not be taxed,” Rev. Taufao said. “Our offerings which includes the alofa, taulaga, sene, should not be taxed and the Court has supported our position.”

Defense lawyer, Mr. Su’a added the law to tax Church ministers goes against the Samoan culture of offerings being given to church ministers. He explained that when people give offerings it is given to church ministers as representatives of God.

“We give (offerings) to the church ministers as representatives of God,” said Mr. Su’a. “This is not just a case of C.C.C.S. and the government it’s everyone. As Christians we need to remind ourselves that this law is going against the fabric of our Christian principles which now is inseparably part of our culture.”  

The woman who has been tasked by the Government to drive the implementation of the law and the Commissioner of the Ministry for Revenue, Matafeo Avalisa Viali - Fautuaali’i, declined to comment on the outcome of the hearing.

But her boss and Prime Minister Tuilaepa had a lot to say. Speaking during his weekly media programme, the Prime Minister announced that from now onwards, the Office of the Attorney General would take over the prosecution.

"This means this is not the end of this case,” Tuilaepa said.

Tuilaepa said the Judge noted that the proper procedures were not followed by the Ministry of Revenue.

"The Revenue office did not follow protocols out of respect for the church ministers,” Tuilaepa said. “They should have consulted with the police and have them serve the summons, instead they went on their own."

The Prime Minister added that the matter would now be handed to more intelligent lawyers as opposed to what he described as "weak" lawyers.

“This is a game,” he said, adding that the Office of the Attorney General is well equipped to ensure what happened on Thursday will not be repeated.

“They (Office of the Attorney General) have about 40 lawyers versus two shallow lawyers from the Ministry for Revenue,” Tuilaepa said.

And as a parting threat, the Prime Minister again urged the Ministers of C.C.C.S. to pay their taxes so they can bring these court cases to an end.

Well that’s unlikely to happen. With the Church having recently approved $1million tala for legal fees to fight the Government on this issue, this saga is far from over. Round two will be at the District Court on 28th July 2019 when the next lot of Church Ministers appear for the same charges.

Stay tuned!

Have a wonderful weekend Samoa, God bless!

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