Church, Government and question of taxes
Just when we thought the tax saga between the Government and the biggest denomination on the land was out of sight and out of mind, back it comes to the centre of national attention at the start of a new year.
It re-surfaced on Wednesday morning with the story titled “C.C.C.S. Ministers facing fresh tax charges” published on the front page of your newspaper. The fresh development opens a new chapter in a dispute that has been bubbling since 2017 when the Government started hatching the plan to tax the alofa* for church ministers.
At the time, the idea was simply inconceivable in the minds of many Samoans. Most of them had become so used to the idea that church ministers were God’s representatives on earth and therefore demanding them to pay taxes on monies donated to them on behalf of God was unthinkable.
Still Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa’ilele Malielegaoi and his Government persisted. And where they met opposition, they would not be denied so that last year, history was created for the first time in this Christian country when the Government prosecuted close to 40 Ministers of the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa who opposed the law.
But the Government’s plan hit a snag when District Court Judge, Leota Raymond Schuster, dismissed the charges against the Ministers on a technical legal loophole.
The C.C.C.S. General Secretary, Rev. Vavatau Taufao, at the time obviously saw the decision as “divine intervention,” pointing out that the Court’s ruling is testament church ministers should not be taxed.
“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 alofa, taulaga and sene should not be taxed and the Court has supported our position.”
Defense lawyer, Alex Su’a, elaborated that the Government’s new tax laws contradict the Samoan culture of offerings given to church ministers. He explained that when people give offerings to their church ministers, it is given to them as “representatives of God.”
Still Prime Minister Tuilaepa and his Government would not be moved. If anything, the District Court’s decision only hardened their resolve to ensure no one disobeyed.
So what did they do?
Well firstly the Prime Minister rubbished the legal team at the Ministry of Revenue who prosecuted the matter. Then he brought in his big laui’a in the form of the Attorney General’s Office to find a new mode of attack.
And finally on the front page of the Samoa Observer on Wednesday, we saw the inevitable when another one of Tuilaepa’s laui’as, Minister for Customs and Revenue, Tialavea Tionisio Hunt, announced the latest round in this most intriguing episode of Church vs Government.
“We have consulted with the Attorney General’s office who are prosecuting this matter and [confirmed] that charges will be filed [by] the end of the month," Minister Tialavea said.
"We have already handed over all the necessary documents on the Church Ministers [who] have [allegedly] not filed their taxes, and they will be charged under the tax laws. The law is the law and no one is above, we will proceed with tax related charges."
We accept that the law is the law. And yes we agree that the Government does have a point about taxing Church Ministers.
But the Church Ministers also have a point. Besides, if the Government insists on taxing donations given to Church Ministers, what about envelopes, donations and gifts given to Cabinet Ministers, politicians and senior Government officials? Shouldn’t that be taxed too?
The point is that we would have thought that after all this time; this matter could have been resolved by now.
And yet today from where we stand, the matter has become such a contentious topic it now looks as if any amicable consensus is impossible.
Given everything this country has been through during the past months, don’t you think it’s time the Government changes its tactics?
Write and share your thoughts with us. God bless!
*The alofa is a donation offered by church members to church ministers for their upkeep.