Senate rejects bill to tax church restitutions as “unconstitutional“

Czech Senate, photo: ČTK/Kateřina Šulová

A Communist Party bill aiming to tax church restitutions hit the rocks in the Senate on Wednesday where the vast majority of senators rejected it as “unconstitutional“. The bill was rejected not just by the opposition parties but by nine senators from the ruling ANO and Social Democratic Party which helped to push it through the lower house.

Czech Senate,  photo: ČTK/Kateřina Šulová
The 2013 law on church restitutions was one of the most disputed pieces of legislation setting right the wrongs committed under the communist regime. After years of controversy representatives of 16 churches signed bilateral agreements with the government under which they would receive 75 billion crowns worth of land and property confiscated by the communist regime and get 59 billion crowns worth of compensation money for the rest, to be paid by the state over a period of 30 years. The idea was that this should enable them to gain full independence from the state by 2030.

The deal, concluded by a right-wing government, met with severe opposition from the Communists who made an unsuccessful attempt to challenge it in court on the grounds that the restitution package was overinflated. That having failed, they proposed at least taxing the compensation money to be paid for property that could not be returned. In 2018 the party unexpectedly got the leverage to push this demand through the lower house – setting it down as one of the main conditions to be fulfilled for supporting the minority government of Andrej Babis’ ANO party and the Social Democrats.

The prime minister agreed, arguing that he also considered the restitution sum overinflated, and the bill passed smoothly through the lower house. However it hit the rocks in the Senate, where it was denounced as unconstitutional and highly unethical. Senator Jiří Drahoš described the bill as shameful and totally unacceptable.

“It is as if someone were to steal your car, take it apart, sell what they can as spare parts, let the rest go to rust and then return what is left and demand that you pay a gift tax for getting it back. That is totally unethical.”

Jiří Drahoš,  photo: ČTK/Kateřina Šulová
Opposition from right-wing senators, who have a majority in the upper chamber, was expected. What was less so was that it would also be rejected by nine senators from the Social Democratic Party and ANO which helped to push it through the lower house not long ago. Moreover another seven senators from the two parties abstained from the vote – indicting the extent of controversy surrounding the bill. Senator Jan Žaloudník from the Social Democrats explains what made him abstain.

“The church restitutions were not very transparent from the outset, on the other hand to revise a deal that has already been settled is not entirely “kosher” either. So I cannot, in good conscience, vote in favour of taxing the restitutions, but neither can I say I am happy with the settlement.”

Although the bill was rejected by 64 of the 74 senators present, the lower house can override this veto by passing the bill once again, which is what the Communist Party is counting on. The vote –which will inevitably be linked to continued Communist support for the minority government – will be another test of the ruling coalition’s unity.

Should the bill win approval, and be signed into law by the president, the country’s churches and the opposition parties have said they will challenge it in court.