I. Joinder of the applications
59. Given their similar factual and legal backgrounds, the Court decides that the four applications should be joined, in accordance with Rule 42 § 1 of the Rules of Court.
A. Scope of the application
60. Having regard to the submissions made by the first applicant in the course of the proceedings before this Court, the Court considers it necessary to clarify at the outset that the scope of the present case is delimited by the complaints raised in the first applicant’s original applications to the Court. In this regard, the Court notes that in his application and submissions the first applicant made factual statements only with regard to the tax bill for the year 2008. The Court concludes therefore that the applicant, represented by a lawyer, cannot be considered as having validly raised complaints about the tax bills concerning the years after 2008.
B. Alleged violation of Article 9 of the Convention
61. The first applicant complained that the system of collecting church taxes in Germany, as it had been applied to him, had infringed his right to freedom of religion, as provided in Article 9 of the Convention, which reads as follows:
“1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
2. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
62. The Government contested that argument.
63. The Government submitted that the first applicant could not claim to be a direct victim of a violation of Article 9 of the Convention as he had neither personally been charged the special church fee nor been liable to pay it. It had only been his wife who had been liable to pay the special church fee as she had been the recipient of the respective tax bill.
64. The first applicant maintained that he had been a victim of a violation of Article 9 of the Convention as his wife’s special church fee had been offset against his tax reimbursement claim.
65. In order to rely on Article 34 of the Convention, an applicant must be able to claim to be a victim of a violation of the Convention. The individual concerned must be able to show that he or she was “directly affected” by the measure complained of (see Lambert and Others v. France [GC], no. 46043/14, § 89, ECHR 2015 (extracts)). This criterion is not to be applied in a rigid, mechanical and inflexible way (see Karner v. Austria, no. 40016/98, § 25, ECHR 2003-IX). The Court interprets the concept of “victim” autonomously and irrespective of domestic concepts such as those concerning an interest or capacity to act (see Sanles Sanles v. Spain (dec.), no. 48335/99, ECHR 2000-XI), even though the Court should have regard to the fact that an applicant had been a party to the domestic proceedings (see Micallef v. Malta [GC], no. 17056/06, § 48, ECHR 2009).
66. Turning to the case at hand, the Court notes that the special church fee levied on his wife was offset against the first applicant’s tax reimbursement claim (see paragraph 21 above). The Court considers that, irrespective of the question of whether or not the first applicant was liable for the special church fee pursuant to domestic law, he was directly affected by the impugned way of collecting his wife’s special church fee. In view of the foregoing, and given the need to apply the criteria governing victim status in a flexible manner, the Court accepts that the first applicant, even if the part of the tax bill related to the special church fee did not concern him directly, can be considered a victim of the facts complained of within the meaning of Article 34 of the Convention. It therefore rejects the Government’s objection that the first applicant lacked victim status.
67. In so far as the Government submitted that the applicant could have applied for a settlement notice according to Article 218 of the Fiscal Code (see paragraph 51 above) or that he had had the possibility to lodge a preventive declaratory action (vorbeugende Feststellungsklage, see paragraph 52 above), the Court notes that the Government have not invoked in substance the rule to exhaust domestic remedies and, accordingly, sees no reason to address this point as an objection of inadmissibility.
68. The Court notes that no other ground for declaring inadmissible the first applicant’s complaint under Article 9 of the Convention has been established. It must therefore be declared admissible.
(a) The first applicant’s submissions
69. The first applicant submitted that he had been compelled to pay his wife’s special church fee as it had been offset against his tax reimbursement claim. Furthermore, the tax bill had not contained any information on his right to raise an objection against the offsetting or the possibility to apply for a settlement notice. He did thus not have the possibility to apply for a settlement notice. Furthermore, by opting for a joint tax assessment he had not consented to the offsetting as the decision to file a joint tax assessment had been motivated solely by financial considerations and had had nothing to do with a negative confession of religious beliefs.
(b) The Government’s submissions
70. The Government submitted that the special church fee had only been levied because the first applicant and his wife had opted for a joint tax assessment. If they had opted for a separate income tax assessment, the church fee would not have been levied. In that case, his income tax would have increased by EUR 8,400. Accordingly, the spouses’ choice for joint tax assessment had led to a decrease in the first applicant’s tax burden.
71. Furthermore, as far as the offsetting of the first applicant’s wife’s special church fee against his tax reimbursement claim was concerned, the first applicant could have prevented this offsetting by lodging a preventive declaratory action.
72. The Government further argued that, once the offsetting had taken place, the first applicant had had the possibility to apply for a settlement notice under Article 218 of the Fiscal Code. He had thus had the possibility to be repaid the money that had been taken as a result of the offsetting of his wife’s special church fee.
(c) Third parties’ comments
(i) The Churches’ common submissions
73. The intervening churches (compare paragraph 5 above) submitted that the manner and legal framework for raising funds for churches formed part of the relationship between the State and churches and was thus subject to the wide margin of appreciation which was given to States in the building of relations with churches. The levying of church taxes formed part of the right to the self-administration of churches in the Länder. Only church members were obliged to pay a contribution for their religious activities.
74. They further submitted a guideline (Dienstanweisung) for tax authorities without, however, specifying which authority issued it, when it was issued and whether it applied to the first applicant at the relevant time. They alleged that on the basis of this guideline the automatic offsetting of the first applicant’s tax reimbursement claim against his wife’s special church fee could have been stopped upon his opposition.
(ii) The Giordano Bruno Foundation’s submissions
75. The Giordano Bruno Foundation submitted that the assessment of the special church fee on the basis of living expenses rather than on a member’s personal income, entailed, de facto, that the spouse who was not a member of a church had to pay the fee, thus forcing that person to contribute to church finances.
(d) The Court’s assessment
76. Having regard to the first applicant’s complaint, that he had been compelled to pay the special church fee levied on his wife without being a member of that church, the Court considers it appropriate to examine this case from the angle of the negative aspect of freedom of religion and conscience, namely the right of an individual not to be compelled to be involved in religious activities against his will (see, mutatis mutandis, Bruno v. Sweden (dec.), no. 32196/96, 28 August 2001).
(i) whether there was an interference
77. The Court reiterates that as enshrined in Article 9, freedom of thought, conscience and religion is one of the foundations of a “democratic society” within the meaning of the Convention. It is, in its religious dimension, one of the most vital elements that go to make up the identity of believers and their conception of life, but it is also a precious asset for atheists, agnostics, sceptics and the unconcerned. The pluralism indissociable from a democratic society, which has been dearly won over the centuries, depends on it. That freedom entails, inter alia, the freedom to hold or not to hold religious beliefs and to practise or not to practise a religion (see, among other authorities, Buscarini and Others v. San Marino [GC], no. 24645/94, § 34, ECHR 1999-I; and Kokkinakis v. Greece, 25 May 1993, § 31, Series A no. 260-A).
78. While religious freedom is primarily a matter of individual conscience, it also implies freedom to manifest one’s religion alone and in private or in community with others, in public and within the circle of those whose faith one shares. Furthermore, the Court has had occasion to point out that Article 9 enshrines negative rights, for example the freedom not to hold religious beliefs and not to practise a religion (see, to this effect, Sinan Isik v. Turkey, no. 21924/05, § 38, 2 February 2010; and Alexandridis v. Greece, no. 19516/06, § 31, 21 February 2008).
79. This general right protects everyone from being compelled to be involved in religious activities against his will. The payment of a specific tax to a church to fund its religious activities may, in certain circumstances, be seen as such involvement (see Lundberg v. Sweden (dec.), 36846/97, 28 August 2001).
80. The Court notes that the tax bill at issue applied to both the first applicant and his wife (see paragraph 21 above). At the same time, one column of the table showing the result of the authority’s tax assessment was headed “Protestant Church tax, wife”. Furthermore, the explanatory part of the tax bill stated that only the first applicant’s wife was liable for the church tax (see paragraph 22 above). The Court, as a consequence, shares the Government’s point of view that it was the wife on whom the special church fee was being levied and not the first applicant.
81. Nevertheless, the Court has accepted, as noted above, that Article 9 is also a precious asset for non-believers or for those not belonging to any institutionalised religious group like the first applicant in the present case. It necessarily follows that there will be an interference with the negative aspect of that provision when the State brings about a situation in which individuals are obliged – directly or indirectly – to contribute to a religious organisation of which they are not a member. In the present case, the special church fee which was levied on the first applicant’s wife was, in fact, subtracted directly from the first applicant’s tax reimbursement claim by way of an offset due to the spouses’ decision to have their income tax assessed jointly.
82. The Court observes that in the material submitted by the parties there is nothing to suggest that the first applicant had first to consent to the offsetting of his wife’s special church fee against a potential tax reimbursement claim, but that it followed as an automatic consequence of the spouses’ decision for a joint tax assessment. The Court concludes that German legislation brought about a situation where the first applicant was subjected to his wife’s financial obligations towards her church without himself being a member of it.
83. It follows that there has been an interference with the negative aspect of the applicant’s rights under Article 9 of the Convention.
(ii) whether the interference was justified
(α) General Principles
84. In order to determine whether or not an interference entails a violation of Article 9 of the Convention, the Court must ascertain whether it satisfied the requirements of Article 9 § 2, that is to say, whether it was “prescribed by law”, pursued a legitimate aim under that provision and was “necessary in a democratic society” (İzzettin Dogan and Others v. Turkey [GC], no. 62649/10, § 105, ECHR 2016).
85. In particular, an instance of interference will be considered “necessary in a democratic society” for a legitimate aim if it answers a “pressing social need” and, in particular, if it is proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued and if the reasons adduced by the national authorities to justify it are “relevant and sufficient” (see, among many other authorities, İzzettin Dogan and Others, cited above, § 105).
86. As a matter of case-law, in cases concerning the right to freedom of religion the Court has consistently left the Contracting States a certain margin of appreciation in assessing the existence and extent of the necessity of an interference, but this margin is subject to European supervision, embracing both the legislation and the decisions applying it. The Court’s task is to determine whether the measures taken at national level were justified in principle and proportionate (see Manoussakis and Others v. Greece, 29 September 1996, Reports of Judgments and Decisions 1996-IV, § 44).
87. In delimiting the extent of the margin of appreciation, particularly as regards the building of the fragile relations that exist between the State and religions, the Court reiterates that there is no common European standard governing the financing of churches or religions, such questions being closely related to the history and traditions of each country (see Wasmuth v. Germany, no. 12884/03, § 63, 17 February 2011; Spampinato v. Italy (dec.), no. 23123/04, 29 March 2007; and Manoussakis and Others, cited above, § 44). The margin of appreciation left to Contracting States in this regard is thus a wide one (see Schilder v. The Netherlands (dec.), no. 2158/12, 16 October 2012; Miroļubovs and Others v. Latvia, no. 798/05, § 80, 15 September 2009; Alujer Fernández and Caballero García v. Spain (dec.), no. 53072/99, ECHR 2001-VI; and Cha’are Shalom Ve Tsedek v. France [GC], no. 27417/95, § 84, ECHR 2000-VII).
(b) Application to the present case
88. The Court observes that there is no dispute between the parties that there was a legal basis for the impugned offsetting of the first applicant’s tax reimbursement claim against his wife’s special church fee.
89. Furthermore, the interference pursued a legitimate aim within the meaning of Article 9 § 2 of the Convention, namely to guarantee the rights of churches and religious communities which, under German law, have the right to levy church taxes (compare Wasmuth, cited above, § 55). The Court therefore has to decide whether the impugned interference was necessary in a democratic society.
90. In this regard the Court notes that there are two aspects to the first applicant’s complaint. Firstly, that he was compelled to pay his wife’s church fee as it had been offset against his tax reimbursement claim. Secondly, that the tax bill did not contain any information on his rights with regard to that offsetting.
91. In determining whether, in the light of the above principles, the interference with the first applicant’s rights under Article 9 of the Convention is justified in principle and proportionate, the Court notes, at the outset, the first applicant’s submission that the decision to file a joint tax assessment was motivated solely by financial considerations (see paragraph 69 above). The Court considers important that, as a consequence of German tax legislation, the couple’s choice of a joint tax assessment not only had consequences for the calculation of the couple’s overall tax, but also for the administration of the tax claims against the first applicant and his wife, which were put together in one document.
92. The Court further notes that at the time the first applicant and his wife decided for a joint tax assessment, they did not know whether the first applicant would have a tax reimbursement claim that would involve offsetting his wife’s special church fee, or whether the tax authorities would have additional tax claims that would prevent such an offsetting. That was because offsetting is part of the procedure for calculating taxes and the tax authorities only calculate the final income tax after spouses have submitted their tax declaration and made their choice of a joint or separate tax assessment. Under those circumstances, the Court doubts whether a preventive declaratory action can be regarded as a counterbalancing factor in the circumstances of the case, all the more so as the Government have not given any details as to the preconditions and effects of such an action.
93. As far as concerns the Government’s argument that the decision in favour of a joint income tax assessment led to a net reduction in the first applicant’s tax burden, even though his wife’s special church fee was deducted from his tax reimbursement claim, the Court holds that that reduction does not remove the link between the spouses’ choice on financial grounds of a joint tax declaration and the possibility for the tax authorities to offset the special church fee claim against a tax reimbursement claim.
94. Nevertheless, that link has to been seen in the context of the domestic tax system as a whole. The Court considers it important that offsetting does not imply an irreversible financial loss (compare paragraph 16 above). It notes the Government’s argument in that regard that, to undo the offsetting, the first applicant could have applied for a settlement notice under Article 218 of the Fiscal Code. Accordingly, the first applicant’s obligation to pay his wife’s special church fee would have been, in any event, only temporary in case the applicant had applied for it.
95. When balancing, on the one hand, the first applicant’s right to negative freedom of religion and, on the other hand, the public interest in the efficient collection of taxes, including church tax (compare Wasmuth, cited above, § 60), the Court has to take into account the burden put on the first applicant in the offsetting procedure. In particular, it is aware of the fact that the necessity to apply for a settlement notice obliged the first applicant to take more far-reaching action than in the case of Wasmuth, where the applicant had only once to give information of limited scope (ibid.).
96. On the other hand, regard must be had to the fact that, unlike in Wasmuth, it was in the first place the decision of the first applicant and his spouse to make a joint tax declaration which led to the two separate tax claims being handled together in administrative terms. That decision required the State to engage in a more complicated tax assessment and put into motion the rather technical process of offsetting credits against debits. It can therefore be regarded as an administrative mechanism to set the final amount of tax the spouses had to pay after they decided to be taxed together. This administrative mechanism could be undone by setting in practise a further mechanism, namely that of the settlement notice.
97. Furthermore, there is nothing in the material submitted by the parties which indicates that applying for a settlement notice would have caused the first applicant any financial burden, taken up much of his time or entailed any further consequences. That holds true even if an easier solution seems feasible, for instance by allowing spouses to indicate whether or not they agreed to offsetting reimbursement claims against special church fees as early as in the tax declaration form.
98. Lastly, as regards the first applicant’s argument that the tax bill contained no information on available remedies for the offsetting (see paragraph 69 above) and thus did not inform him of his rights under that domestic provision, the Court reiterates its general case-law that the Convention does not guarantee, as such, the right to be informed of available domestic remedies (see Avotiņs v. Latvia [GC], no. 17502/07, § 123, ECHR 2016; and Société Guerin Automobiles v. the 15 States of the European Union (dec.), no. 51717/99, 4 July 2000).
99. Having regard to the competing interests at stake and in view of the relatively minor interference with the first applicant’s rights under Article 9 of the Convention, the Court considers that the possibility to apply for a settlement notice under Article 218 of the Fiscal Code can be regarded as a counterbalancing factor in the present case.
100. The foregoing considerations are sufficient to enable the Court to conclude that, taking into account the wide margin of appreciation left to Contracting States with regard to the definition of the relations between churches and the State (see paragraph 87 above), the domestic authorities have adduced relevant and sufficient reasons to justify the tax authorities’ offsetting the claims of the Protestant Church of the German Land of Baden-Württemberg on his wife against the first applicant’s reimbursement claims, without, in the first place, obtaining the first applicant’s consent to such a calculation.
101. There has accordingly been no violation of Article 9 of the Convention.
C. Alleged violation of Article 14 of the Convention taken in conjunction with Article 9 of the Convention
102. The first applicant further complained that the special church fee as levied by the Protestant Church of the Land of Baden-Württemberg, his wife’s church, discriminated against him when compared with married couples where one spouse did not belong to a church and the other one belonged to a religious community without the right to levy church taxes. He alleged that it was only in his case that a special church fee was levied in accordance with the church member’s living expenses. He relied on Article 9 of the Convention taken in conjunction with Article 14. The latter provision reads, so far as relevant here, as follows:
“The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in [the] Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as ... religion ...”
103. The Government contested that argument.
104. The Court reiterates that according to its settled case-law, Article 14 of the Convention complements the other substantive provisions of the Convention and its Protocols. It has no independent existence since it has effect solely in relation to “the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms” safeguarded by those provisions. Although the application of Article 14 does not presuppose a breach of those provisions – and to this extent it is autonomous – there can be no room for its application unless the facts in issue fall within the ambit of one or more of the latter (see, among many other authorities, Fabris v. France [GC], no. 16574/08, § 47, ECHR 2013 (extracts)).
105. In the present case the Court notes that the first applicant – other than his complaint under Article 9 of the Convention (see paragraph 69 above) – did not complain that the offsetting of his tax reimbursement claim against the claims of his wife’s church discriminated against him, but only that the fact that his income was taken into account by the church when calculating his wife’s church fee was discriminatory. The Court, having regard to the submissions made by the first applicant and to the fact that the church fee had been levied on his wife and not on him, considers that he has not shown that this specific complaint falls within the ambit of Article 9 of the Convention. Thus, Article 14 of the Convention is not applicable.
106. In the light of the foregoing, the Court finds that this complaint under Article 14 of the Convention taken in conjunction with Article 9 is incompatible ratione materiae and must be rejected in accordance with Article 35 §§ 3 (a) and 4 of the Convention.
A. Alleged violation of Article 9 of the Convention, taken alone and in conjunction with Article 14 of the Convention
107. The second and fifth applicants complained that the special church fee levied by the Protestant Church of the Land of Bavaria infringed their right to freedom of religion, as provided in Article 9 of the Convention, taken alone and read in conjunction with Article 14.
108. The Government contested that argument.
1. The Government’s submissions
109. Relying on the Commission’s decisions in the case of Gottesmann v. Switzerland (no. 10616/83, 4 December 1984) and E. and G.R. v. Austria (no. 9781/82, 14 May 1984), the Government stated that the second and fifth applicants’ obligation to pay the special church fee did not constitute an interference with their right to freedom of religion, as both had been members of a church and the obligation to pay fees for that membership had not interfered with its members’ freedom of religion. The Government further stressed that the applicants, had they not wanted to pay the special church fee, could have chosen to leave their church (reference Konttinen v. Finland, no. 24949/94, Commission decision of 3 December 1996).
2. The applicants’ submissions
110. The second and the fifth applicants argued that the calculation of the special church fee on the basis of a church member’s living expenses rather than on the basis of his or her personal income had infringed their right to freedom of religion as the special church fee could exceed their personal income, which would render them dependent on their spouses in the exercise of their freedom of religion. The fifth applicant was furthermore of the opinion that the special church fee discriminated against women, as it was mainly women in Germany who had no income and on whom the special church fee was levied.
3. The third parties
111. The intervening churches (see paragraph 5 above) submitted that the aim of the special church fee was to include every church member without an income, according to his or her financial capacity in the funding of the churches’ activity. In the case that this church member was married, the financial capacity stemmed in case of joint tax assessment not only from the income of the church member, but from the income of the spouse as well.
112. According to the Giordano Bruno foundation the connecting point for the calculation of the special church fee, namely the joint taxable income, infringed the individual’s right to freedom of religion as the fee was not calculated with reference to the individual church member’s income.
4. The Court’s assessment
113. Having regard to its general principles (see paragraphs 77-79 above) the Court reiterates its case-law that a church tax does not, as such, interfere with the right to freedom of religion, as long as State legislation provides for the possibility to leave the church (compare E. and G.R. v. Austria, cited above; and Gottesmann, cited above).
114. The Court notes that the second and fifth applicants were members of the Protestant Church of the Land of Bavaria and had thus not been compelled to be involved in religious activities against their will, without being a member of such a community (contrast Bruno, cited above). Furthermore, the two applicants did not dispute the fact that they had a general obligation to pay a special church fee (contrast E. and G.R. v. Austria, cited above). They only complained about the way the church calculated that fee, namely by basing it on their living expenses, and in turn their spouses’ income as well as their own (see paragraph 110 above).
115. The Court observes that the second and fifth applicants’ obligation to pay a special church fee and the way it was calculated did not arise directly under the State’s legislation, which only authorised churches to levy church taxes, but derived from a decision taken independently by the Protestant Church of the Land of Bavaria to levy a special church fee on its members and the manner in which it was to be calculated. As such, it thus cannot be attributed to the respondent State. The fact that churches are subject to State control on this issue does not change the nature of the levying of contributions as an autonomous church activity (compare E. and G.R. v. Austria, cited above).
116. Having regard to the fact that the State’s role in this field is limited to the exercise of a power of control and that the second and fifth applicants neither called into question their obligation to pay a church fee nor their right to leave their church, the Court is of the opinion that the German authorities have included sufficient safeguards to ensure freedom of religion. It concludes therefore that there is no appearance of any interference with the applicants’ rights under Article 9 of the Convention.
117. As regards the fifth applicant’s further complaint under Article 14 of the Convention taken in conjunction with Article 9, the Court, having regard to the submissions made by the applicant, considers that she has not shown that she was treated differently than other individuals in a similar situation because of her sex.
118. The second and fifth applicants’ complaints are thus manifestly ill-founded and must be rejected in accordance with Article 35 §§ 3 (a) and 4 of the Convention.
B. Further complaints
119. The second and fifth applicants complained further under Article 8 and Article 12 of the Convention, each taken alone and in conjunction with Article 14, that the levying of a special church fee on spouses in a marriage where only one of them belonged to a church entitled to levy taxes discriminated against them when compared with spouses who belonged to different churches entitled to levy taxes and unmarried couples.
120. In the light of all the material before it, and in so far as the matters complained of are within its competence, the Court finds that the second and fifth applicants’ complaints do not disclose any appearance of a violation of Article 8 and Article 12 of the Convention, each taken alone and in conjunction with Article 14.
121. The Court accordingly finds that their complaints are manifestly ill-founded and must be rejected in accordance with Article 35 §§ 3 (a) and 4 of the Convention.
IV. Application No. 25359/11 (the third and fourth applicants)
122. The third and fourth applicants complained that the domestic provisions concerning the levying of church taxes – unlike the cases of the second and fifth applicants, which concerned the levying of the special church fee (with regard to the differences compare paragraph 12 above) – as they had been applied to them had breached their right to freedom of religion, as provided in Article 9 of the Convention, taken alone and read in conjunction with Article 14.
123. The Government contested that argument.
1. The Government’s submissions
124. With regard to the third applicant, the Government contested his victim status as he had stated that he had been willing to pay church tax and had only complained that his wife’s income had been taken into account when the tax had been calculated, even though she was not a member of a church.
125. With regard to the fourth applicant, the Government argued that the fact that her income had been taken into consideration when the church had calculated her husband’s church tax had stemmed, firstly, from the fact that the third applicant’s Church had linked the rate of his church tax to his income tax liability and, secondly, from the couple’s decision to have a joint tax assessment, and thus could not be attributed to the State. Furthermore, the fourth applicant had failed to show that she had contributed financially to her husband’s church as a result of that calculation method. On the contrary, as a direct result of the spouses’ decision to opt for a joint tax assessment, the third applicant had benefited from the progressive effect of the German tax system, which had led to his church tax being lower than it would have been if he had made a separate income tax declaration. For example, the third applicant’s church tax in 2005 had been assessed at EUR 629.55, while under a separate income tax declaration it would have been EUR 825.75.
2. The third and fourth applicants’ submissions
126. The third and fourth applicants argued that their decision to make a joint income tax declaration had been based solely on financial considerations, namely the positive consequences of progressive taxation. However, it had also involuntarily directly affected the way the third applicant’s church tax had been calculated, as his church, as a direct consequence of that decision, had taken the fourth applicant’s income into account. As a result, the fourth applicant had had to contribute to financing her husband’s church, which had constituted an interference with her negative rights under Article 9 of the Convention.
127. Furthermore, the third applicant had declared that he was willing to pay his church tax, but had objected that it had been too high as it had been calculated in relation to his share of their joint income tax rather than in relation to his share of their total income.
128. Lastly, the applicants as spouses in a marriage where only one spouse belonged to a church entitled to levy taxes (see paragraph 12 above) stated that they had been discriminated against when compared with spouses who both belonged to a church levying church taxes in case of a joint tax declaration, as in both cases both incomes were taken into account to calculate the amount of the church tax even though in the case of the third and fourth applicants only one spouse belonged to a church.
3. The Court’s assessment
129. The Court notes, at the outset, that the parties agreed that the applicants’ decision to file a joint income tax declaration directly determined how the church calculated the third applicant’s church tax as it was levied in accordance with his tax assessment basis and thus took both incomes into account. The Court further notes the Government’s submission (see paragraph 125 above), which was uncontested by the third and fourth applicants, that as a direct result of this decision, the third applicant benefited from Germany’s progressive tax system and that his church charged him a lower church tax than if they had made separate income tax declarations.
130. Against this background the Court considers that both applicants failed to substantiate that their decision to have a joint tax assessment had increased the third applicant’s church tax, nor was that evident in the material submitted by the parties. On the contrary, according to the Government’s submissions, the direct result of the spouses’ decision was that the third applicant’s church tax was lower than under separate income tax declarations. In contrast to the Government’s similar argument in the case of the first applicant, where this decision enabled his wife’s church to collect its special church fee at the expense of the first applicant’s tax reimbursement claim (see paragraph 93 above), in the present case the church tax was levied on and collected from the person liable to pay it, namely the third applicant, who is a member of a church.
131. Moreover, having regard to the wide margin of appreciation left to Contracting States in this area (see Alujer Fernández, cited above; and Cha’are Shalom Ve Tsedek, cited above, § 84), the Court is of the opinion that the domestic courts’ decisions on the calculation method used by the Protestant Church of the Land of Thuringia, as it did not cause any negative financial consequences for the applicants, cannot be said to have involved the fourth applicant in religious activities against her will, even though the domestic courts accepted that the church’s calculation method was a consequence of the decision to file a joint income tax declaration and thus took into consideration the fourth applicant’s income when assessing the third applicant’s church tax.
132. As regards the third applicant’s further objection about the church’s method of calculation of his church tax, the Court reiterates that in view of its general principles as set out above (see paragraph 113 above), the church tax does not, as such, interfere with the right to freedom of religion, as long as State legislation provides for the possibility to leave the church. The calculation of the third applicant’s church tax did not arise directly from State legislation, but derived from a decision taken independently by the Protestant Church of the Land of Thuringia. As such, that decision cannot be attributed to the respondent State (see paragraph 115 above).
133. As regards the third and fourth applicants’ further complaint that they were being discriminated against when compared with spouses who both belong to a church levying church tax, the Court considers that, while in the latter case both spouses belonged to a church levying church tax, in the case of the third and fourth applicants only one spouse had to pay a church tax. Thus the third and fourth applicants cannot be said to be in the same situation as couples who are both members of a church levying taxes.
134. Therefore, the Court concludes that their complaints are manifestly ill-founded and must be rejected in accordance with Article 35 §§ 3 (a) and 4 of the Convention.
For these reasons, the Court, unanimously,
1. Decides to join the four applications;
2. Declares the complaint of the first applicant (application no. 10138/11) concerning Article 9 of the Convention admissible and the remainder of his complaints and the applications of the second, third, fourth and fifth applicants inadmissible;
3. Holds that there has been no violation of Article 9 of the Convention.
Concurring opinion of Judge Grozev
While I agree with the conclusion that there has been no violation of the applicants’ rights under the Convention, I have some difficulties following the approach taken with respect to the first applicant’s complaint of a violation of Article 14 in conjunction with Article 9. The Court found that this complaint of the first applicant was incompatible ratione materiae and accordingly rejected it, as it did not fall within the ambit of Article 9 (see paragraphs 104-106 of the judgment).
The complaint made by the applicant was that he was treated differently on account of his tax obligations, and that difference in treatment was based on his wife’s belonging to a particular religion. Looking at the first element, the applicant was indeed treated differently compared with individuals who were in the same situation, namely individuals with a higher income than their spouse, but whose spouse did not belong to a church with tax-levying powers. Those other individuals had the possibility of opting for a joint tax assessment, with the benefits that come from such joint assessment, without being forced as a result to have their total income taken as a basis for the calculation of their wife’s church contributions. The applicant did not have that choice and thus was treated less favourably. He could choose only one of those two alternatives, either a joint tax assessment or not having his income taken into account for the purpose of the calculation of his wife’s church contributions. It is precisely this restriction of the choice available to the first applicant that amounted to a different treatment and this was the substance of his complaint before the Court (see paragraph 102). This difference in treatment was based on the religion of the applicant’s wife and as a result, in my view, falls within the ambit of Article 9, with the requisite need for justification of such different treatment.
At the same time, while this complaint of discriminatory treatment has been made before our Court, it was not made as such by the applicant before any domestic authority or court. The applicant did not raise it in his complaint before the domestic tax authorities (see paragraph 23) and never brought it before a domestic court. While some of the justifications for this differential treatment could be inferred from earlier domestic judgments, particularly those of the Federal Constitutional Court in its relevant judgments, the fact remains that this complaint was never addressed at the domestic level. Thus, although it falls within the ambit of Articles 14 and 9 of the Convention, an assessment of its justification would be particularly difficult in the light of the lack of proper consideration at the domestic level, this also being contrary to the principle of subsidiarity.
1. Het in art. 9 EVRM neergelegde recht op godsdienstvrijheid omvat onder meer een negatief aspect. Dit aspect is het recht van mensen om niet tegen hun wil worden gedwongen te worden betrokken in religieuze activiteiten, zoals het moeten betalen van kerkbelasting (Klein e.a., par. 79). In Duitsland wordt kerkbelasting geheven van mensen die bij een kerkgenootschap zijn aangesloten. Indien een stel bestaat uit een kerklid en een niet-kerklid is denkbaar dat er bij de heffing of invordering van kerkbelasting spanning ontstaat met het negatieve aspect van de godsdienstvrijheid van het niet-kerklid. Het Duitse federale constitutionele hof heeft gezorgd voor belangrijke waarborgen ter bescherming van dat negatieve aspect (zie par. 56 van deze uitspraak). Reeds in 1965 heeft dat hof geoordeeld dat een niet-kerklid niet aansprakelijk is om kerkbelasting te betalen die zijn partner die wel kerklid is, verschuldigd is. Ook heeft dat hof geoordeeld dat indien een kerklid geen inkomen heeft, het een kerk niet geoorloofd is om het inkomen van zijn partner/niet-kerklid in aanmerking te nemen als basis voor de heffing van kerkbelasting bij het kerklid. Materieel geldt daarop echter een nuance. Het is namelijk volgens het Duitse hof wel geoorloofd om, indien het kerklid geen inkomen heeft, een ‘speciale kerkbijdrage’ te heffen op basis van de uitgaven voor levensonderhoud in plaats van het inkomen, welke uitgaven op hun beurt weer – onder omstandigheden – geschat mogen worden op basis van ... het gezamenlijke inkomen van het stel. Het lijkt er dus op dat het gezamenlijke inkomen niet als directe grondslag voor de kerkbelasting is toegestaan, maar wel indirect als grondslag voor de speciale kerkbijdrage in het kader van een fictie.
2. Indien een stel bestaat uit een kerklid en een niet-kerklid, is een variëteit aan situaties denkbaar waarin (het inkomen van) een niet-kerklid op een of andere manier toch betrokken wordt bij de heffing of invordering van kerkbelasting of de speciale kerkbijdrage van zijn partner/kerklid. Het Duitse systeem van heffing en/of invordering van kerkbelasting en de speciale kerkbijdrage draagt hieraan bij. Het Duitse systeem, dat mij niet op alle punten even helder is, is beschreven in par. 8-15 van de uitspraak. Hier relevant is ook dat de invordering van de kerkbelasting geschiedt door de Duitse belastingdienst namens de kerken (tegen een vergoeding door de kerken; zie par. 9). Het gaat in de zaken die in de onderhavige uitspraak aan de orde zijn, schematisch samengevat om het volgende:
Verrekening speciale kerkbijdrage kerklid met belastingclaim van niet-kerklid
Gezamenlijk inkomen als grondslag voor speciale kerkbijdrage.
Bij gebrek aan inkomen moet niet-kerklid betalen voor kerklid.
Berekening van kerkbelasting op basis van inkomstenbelasting naar rato van de aan het kerklid toerekenbare deel van de inkomstenbelasting, waardoor rekening wordt gehouden met het inkomen van het niet-kerklid
Zie bij klager 2
3. In deze annotatie ga ik alleen in op de klacht van klager 1 dat art. 9 EVRM is geschonden. Dit is de enige klacht die ontvankelijk wordt verklaard. De overige klachten worden op inhoudelijke gronden (‘manifestly ill-founded’) niet-ontvankelijk verklaard en geven mij geen bijzondere aanleiding tot opmerkingen. Ik merk slechts op dat de kern van de afwijzing van de klachten van de klagers/kerkleden over de wijze van berekening van de grondslag voor de kerkbelasting of de speciale kerkbijdrage is dat de wijze waarop de heffing wordt berekend, een kwestie tussen de kerkleden en de kerk is, waar de Duitse overheid buiten staat (vgl. par. 115 en 132).
4. Van een afstand bezien kan bij de klacht van de eerste klager de vraag rijzen of er niet sprake is van een bagatelprobleem. Klager 1/niet-kerklid krijgt minder belasting terug van de Duitse fiscus omdat verrekening plaatsvindt van zijn recht op belastingteruggaaf (de belastingclaim) met de speciale kerkbijdrage die zijn partner/kerklid verschuldigd is. Maar is dit een wezenlijke aantasting van het recht op negatieve godsdienstvrijheid? Klager 1 voldoet door die verrekening in wezen een schuld van zijn partner. Het lijkt voor de hand te liggen – maar misschien zit de Duitse wetgeving niet zo in elkaar – dat klager 1 daarmee een vordering voor een gelijk bedrag op zijn partner krijgt. Omdat in dat geval de vermogenspositie in beginsel niet wezenlijk wijzigt, lijkt er niet zo veel aan de hand te zijn. Dat zou wellicht anders kunnen zijn indien die partner de schuld aan klager 1 niet zou kunnen of willen betalen. Dat daarvan sprake is blijkt niet uit de uitspraak. Ik vraag me daarom af of van klager 1 niet meer had mogen worden verwacht wat betreft onderbouwing van de klacht met betrekking tot materialiteit van de gestelde aantasting.
5. Het EHRM ziet in beginsel wel een probleem. Het is speculatief maar wellicht speelt daarbij een rol dat het EHRM deze zaak wil aangrijpen om duidelijkheid te scheppen over de verenigbaarheid met art. 9 EVRM van het hier aan de orde zijnde aspect van het Duitse systeem, los van de concrete omstandigheden van het geval van klager 1. Het EHRM verwerpt het verweer van de Duitse regering dat klager 1 geen slachtoffer is in de zin van art. 34 EVRM (par. 63-68) en het oordeelt dat er sprake is van aantasting van het negatieve aspect van het recht op godsdienstvrijheid (par. 77-83). Voldoende voor dit laatste is reeds het feit dat de Duitse wetgeving, als gevolg van de keuze van klager 1 en zijn partner voor een gezamenlijke inkomstenbelastingaanslag, meebrengt dat de belastingclaim van klager 1 wordt verrekend met de speciale kerkbijdrage van zijn partner, terwijl klager 1 geen kerklid is. Het pijnpunt voor EHRM zit hier naar mijn indruk in de ‘automatische’ koppeling tussen de voormelde keuze in de inkomstenbelastingsfeer en de mogelijkheid tot verrekening. Dat dit het pijnpunt is, vindt ook steun in de overweging van het EHRM (par. 82) dat niet gebleken is dat klager 1 had ingestemd met de verrekening. Dat pijnpunt verklaart ook dat aan de aantasting kennelijk niet afdoet dat de Duitse wetgeving erin voorziet (zie par. 16) dat klager 1 had kunnen opteren voor een ‘settlement notice’ (Abrechnungsbescheid) en daarmee voor teruggaaf van het verrekende bedrag. Anders gezegd: een systeem waarbij de burger in actie moet komen – hoe laagdrempelig ook (vgl. par. 97) – om niet aangetast te worden in zijn recht op (negatieve) godsdienstvrijheid, kan niet wegnemen dat er prima facie wel sprake is van een aantasting. De mogelijkheid van het opteren voor een ‘settlement notice’ neem het EHRM trouwens vervolgens wel in aanmerking bij de beoordeling of de aantasting gerechtvaardigd kan worden (zie randnr. 8 hierna).
6. Dan is vervolgens de vraag of de aantasting gerechtvaardigd is. De horde dat de aantasting voorzien moet zijn bij wet, levert geen probleem op (par. 88). Dat geldt ook voor de eis dat de aantasting een legitiem doel dient. Het EHRM gaat bij dit laatste wel erg kort door de bocht door als legitiem doel aan te merken het garanderen van het recht van kerken onder de Duitse wetgeving om kerkbelasting te heffen (par. 89). Dat garanderen moge een legitiem doel zijn en de hulp van de Duitse fiscus bij de heffing en/of invordering ook, maar hier gaat het om iets anders. Hier gaat het om een automatische verrekening van de speciale kerkbijdrage met een vordering buiten het domein van de kerk, i.e. de belastingclaim. Nu een dergelijke automatische verrekening een efficiënte en effectieve vorm van invordering is (althans efficiënter en effectiever dan enerzijds een teruggaaf van belasting verlenen en anderzijds het bedrag aan speciale kerkbijdrage invorderen met alle mogelijke inningsproblemen), lijkt mij overigens wel een legitiem doel aanwezig (vgl. ook par. 95 waarin het EHRM wel expliciet op de efficiëntie wijst).
7. Meer problematisch is volgens mij of voldaan wordt aan de eis dat de aantasting in een democratische samenleving noodzakelijk moet zijn. Ik zie, als zojuist gezegd, wel het voordeel van de automatische verrekening (efficiënt en effectief), maar waarom de maatregel noodzakelijk is, is mij niet duidelijk geworden. Ik merk in dit verband ook op dat het bestaan van de hiervoor in randnummer 5 genoemde mogelijkheid van het opteren voor een ‘settlement notice’ – in wezen het terugdraaien van de verrekening dus, althans zo begrijp ik het – lijkt mij af te doen aan de stelling dat het systeem van verrekening noodzakelijk is.
8. Het komt mij voor dat omdat het EHRM de aantasting als relatief beperkt ziet, het EHRM de noodzakelijkheidstoets niet al te zwaar aanzet. Het gaat volgens het EHRM uiteindelijk om een afweging tussen het algemeen belang van een efficiënte invordering van belastingen en het recht van klager 1 op een negatieve godsdienstvrijheid (par. 95). Die afweging leidt ertoe dat het EHRM het recht op godsdienstvrijheid niet geschonden acht. De omstandigheden die het EHRM daarbij van belang vindt, zijn in de kern (i) dat klager 1 en zijn partner zelf hebben gekozen voor een gezamenlijke belastingaanslag (par. 91 en 96) en (ii) dat klager 1 had kunnen opteren voor de voornoemde ‘settlement notice’ zonder noemenswaardige nadelen (par. 94 en 97). Het lijkt erop dat deze omstandigheden worden aangehaald om de mate van aantasting van het recht op negatieve godsdienstvrijheid te nuanceren. Aan het gewicht van het voornoemd algemeen belang dat die aantasting moet rechtvaardigen, besteedt het EHRM verder geen aandacht.
Dat de eerste omstandigheid van belang is, vind ik niet overtuigend. Waarom zou een bepaalde keuze voor de belastingheffing – welke keuze op dat terrein waarschijnlijk financiële voordelen heeft voor het stel – gevolgen moeten hebben voor het niet-kerklid met betrekking tot de wijze van invordering van de speciale kerkbijdrage? Het EHRM wijst op de omstandigheid dat als gevolg van de keuze voor een gezamenlijke belastingaanslag, de ‘tax claims’ van klager 1 en zijn partner geadministreerd worden in een document. Het is mij echter niet helder waarom het vermelden van bedragen in één document ook moet betekenen dat bedragen verrekend worden. Het EHRM koppelt verder de ‘more complicated tax assessment’ aan ‘the rather technical process of offsetting credits against debts’ (par. 96). Ook dat begrijp ik niet goed: de (complexe) berekening van de gezamenlijke inkomstenbelastingaanslag lijkt mij op zichzelf geen verband te hoeven houden met de wijze van invordering van de speciale kerkbijdrage. Dat verrekening technisch ingewikkeld is, lijkt er aan voorbij te gaan dat hier juist het probleem is dat bedragen (uit twee verschillende sferen) verrekend worden. Het bedrag aan speciale kerkbijdrage stond bovendien afzonderlijk vermeld op het aanslagbiljet (par. 21) en was dus in zoverre ook administratief reeds af te zonderen.
De tweede omstandigheid lijkt mij inderdaad (wel) relevant. Maar dan lijkt mij ook relevant te zijn of klager 1 geïnformeerd is over de mogelijkheid van het opteren voor de ‘settlement notice’. Dat is hier, naar ik begrijp, niet gebeurd. Het EHRM gaat daaraan echter voorbij met een verwijzing naar zijn vaste rechtspraak dat het EVRM niet het recht om te worden geïnformeerd over beschikbare nationale rechtsmiddelen als zodanig garandeert (par. 98). Maar waarom zou het gebrek aan voorlichting niet kunnen worden meegewogen bij de afweging? Die vraag rijst te meer gelet op het kennelijke belang dat het EHRM hecht aan het gegeven dat klager 1 had kunnen opteren voor de ‘settlement notice’.
9. Kortom, de vraag kan rijzen of bij klager 1 wel sprake is van een werkelijke aantasting van zijn recht op negatieve godsdienstvrijheid (zie randnr. 4), maar als men met het EHRM aanneemt dat dit wel het geval is, kunnen kanttekeningen worden geplaatst bij de motivering door het EHRM dat de aantasting gerechtvaardigd is.
10. Wie meer wil weten over de verhouding van kerkbelasting en art. 9 EVRM, wijs ik op het uitgebreide artikel van Thierry Obrist en Luc Gonin, ‘Freedom of Religion and Church Taxes in Europe’, World Tax Journal 2013, p. 269-300. De onderhavige uitspraak is ook geannoteerd door Thomas in Highlights&Insights 2017/145. Verder is er een (beschrijvend) blogpost aan gewijd door Frank Cranmer in Law & Religion UK, 6 April 2017, op www.lawandreligionuk.com.
mr. dr. M.R.T. Pauwels, Verbonden aan het Fiscaal Instituut Tilburg van de Tilburg University en werkzaam bij de Rechtbank Zeeland-West-Brabant