Most back church-state separation in Western Europe, despite paying church tax

EPA-EFE//GIUSEPPE LAMI

Pope Francis blesses the faithful that gathered in St. Peter's Square on the occasion of the Regina Coeli noon prayer, at the Vatican, 22 April 2019.

Most back church-state separation in Western Europe, despite paying church tax


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Widespread public support for the separation of church and state is the norm in Western Europe, even in countries that have a government-mandated church tax to fund religious institutions, according to a new analysis of a recent Pew Research Center study.

The majority of adults in six countries with a mandatory church tax for members of major religious groups – Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland – agree with the statement “religion should be kept separate from government policies,” rather than favoring the alternate position that “government should promote religious values and beliefs in the country.”

Eight-in-ten adults in Denmark and three-in-four in Austria (76%), for example, say they pay the church tax – responses that indicate a willingness to make the payment, even though the actual shares of Danes and Austrians who pay church taxes may be lower. In both countries, more than half of respondents (76% in Denmark and 56% in Austria) also say religion should be kept separate from government policies.

Churches, and in some cases other religious institutions in several Western European countries, are funded through a mandatory tax on registered members. People can opt out of the tax by deregistering from their churches, but roughly seven-in-ten or more of respondents in the surveyed church-tax countries say they pay the tax.

The difference in opinion between church-tax payers and those who have opted out may be fueling a wider debate in these countries about religious freedom and the role of churches in European societies today.

Views on church-state relations vary in the three Western European countries that give taxpayers the voluntary option of making a donation to a religious organization: Italy, Portugal and Spain. In Italy and Portugal, support for church-state separation is on the lower end of the scale, at 55% and 56%, respectively. But in Spain, support for separation of church and state is quite high (75%).

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