Although they have rented it out to a restaurant for the past five years, the owners of one building in Aspe have never paid property tax. Nor have they ever paid tax on the apartments that house two of their employees. But that may be about to change. Last week, the city’s government voted to partially rescind the exemption that the Catholic Church, landlord of those three properties and another eight more in town, has long enjoyed. And thanks to the crisis that threatens to upend Spain’s economy, it’s not the only place demanding change.
Three different laws, including a 1979 agreement with the Vatican, exempt the Catholic Church from paying property tax in Spain. The same provision holds for other recognized religions and non-profit organizations like the Red Cross, yet because Catholicism is the dominant religion in Spain, and because the Church’s holdings there are so vast (EspaÃ±a Laica, a pro-secularism group, estimates that were it not for the exemption, the church would annually owe 2.5 to 3 billion euros in property taxes), critics have long argued that the arrangement is part of the preferential treatment granted the Catholic Church. It’s only now, however, with austerity measures bearing down and a European bailout looming, that anyone has thought to put that criticism into action. Economic pressure, in other words, may well accomplish what 33 years of democracy have not.
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