Court ruling on Scientology as a religion 'raises big issues'

By staff writers
12 Dec 2013

The UK Supreme Court has decided that Scientology is a religion and that its churches constitute a "place of meeting for religious worship" applicable to the requirements of the Marriage Act 1949.

The decision, which raises big issues about religion in public life, has been taken in response to an appeal concerned the question whether a church of the Church of Scientology was recordable as a "place of meeting for religious worship", with the effect that a valid ceremony of marriage could be performed there.

Louisa Hodkin and her fiancé, Alessandro Calcioli, are members of the Church of Scientology and wished to be married in its premises on Queen Victoria Street, London. The second appellant was the proprietor of that church.

The decision is likely to prove highly controversial, since Scientology, a body of beliefs and related practices created by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, has been widely criticised as "a manipulative cult".

Time magazine published an article in 1991 which described Scientology as "a hugely profitable global racket that survives by intimidating members and critics in a Mafia-like manner."

Hubbard characterised his creation as a religion, and in 1953 incorporated the Church of Scientology in Camden, New Jersey, USA. Leaders of the Church, which claims a range of celebrity adherents, have conducted vigorous, well-funded public campaigns for its recognition.

Its legal and public status differs widely. It is deemed a religion in the USA, for example, but since 1997 Germany has considered Scientology to be in conflict with the principles of the nation's constitution. It is outlawed in France.

UK local government minister Brandon Lewis said that he was “very concerned” about the Supreme Court ruling and its implications for business rates because of tax breaks the Church of Scientology may become eligible for.

He noted that ministers in the previous government had promised during the passing of the Equalities Act 2010 that Scientology would continue to fall outside religious exemptions.

“We will review the court’s verdict and discuss this with our legal advisers before deciding the next steps. However, it will remain the case that premises which are not genuinely open to the public will not qualify for tax relief.”

"Even leaving aside the controversies surrounding Scientology itself, this Supreme Court ruling raises significant questions about marriage law, about the role of the state in defining religion, and about the various privileges that can currently accrue to recognised religious bodies in public life," noted Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia today (11 December 2013).

"Along with others, we will be examining and reflecting upon those issues at greater length after studying the decision in more detail," he added.

The full summary of the judgment in R (Hodkin & Anor) v Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages [2013] UKSC 77 reads as follows:

On 31 May 2011 a trustee of the church applied on behalf of the congregation to record the church under section 2 of the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855 ("PWRA").

This statute provides that every "place of meeting for religious worship" may be certified to the Registrar General, who will cause that place of meeting to be recorded as such a place. Recording under PWRA then entitles the building to be registered for the solemnisation of marriages under the Marriage Act 1949, which in turn enables the building to be used for marriage according to the "form and ceremony" chosen by the marrying couple.

The Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages stated that she was bound by the Court of Appeal's 1970 judgment in R v Registrar General, ex parte Segerdal [1970] 2 QB 697 ("Segerdal") to reject the appellants' application. In that case, which involved an earlier attempt by the Church of Scientology to record a chapel under PWRA, the Court of Appeal had held that Scientology did not involve "religious worship" since it did not involve "reverence or veneration of God or of a Supreme Being", but rather instruction in a philosophy.

The appellants judicially reviewed the Registrar-General's decision. In the High Court, Justice Ouseley held that he was bound by Segerdal to dismiss the appellants' judicial review claim.

He concluded on the evidence that Scientology was a religion, but that the Segerdal definition of "religious worship" remained unfulfilled, since there had been no essential change in the nature and practices of Scientology since 1970.

Since Segerdal would be binding at Court of Appeal level also, Justice Ouseley certified a point of law of general public importance for a 'leapfrog' appeal directly to the Supreme Court. The appellants appealed.

The Supreme Court unanimously allowed the appeal. The leading judgment was given by Lord Toulson. Lord Wilson added a concurring judgment on the issue of whether the Registrar General's function in recording premises as "places of meeting for religious worship" is decisional or purely administrative.

The Registrar General has a decision-making function in recording premises as "places of meeting for religious worship" [page 26, 66f]. Historically, such recording had originally been instituted to enable some non-conformist churches to avoid criminal penalties directed at non- Church of England worship [page 70]. As a result, recording under those statutes was simply an administrative matter [page71].

However, the PWRA had significantly changed the language and purpose of the requirement [page 75]. Properly construed, s. 2 PWRA gives the Registrar General a discretion to record, essentially for three reasons. Firstly, this is the natural meaning of the language used [page 76].

Secondly, this is consistent with the Registrar General's other functions under PWRA, which give her decision-making functions in relation to the renewal or cessation of use of recorded premises [pages 77-79]. Thirdly, by the time that PWRA was enacted, the purpose of recording had altered: certification no longer only gave protection from criminal liability but also gave access to a number of privileges [pages 79-82].

In considering whether the appellants' church qualifies for such recording, the first substantive question is whether Scientology is properly to be regarded as a religion. The interpretation of "religious worship" in Segerdal carried within it an implicit theistic definition of religion: what the Court of Appeal required was reverence for God [page 31].

There has never been a universal legal definition of religion in English law, given the variety of world religions, changes in society, and the different legal contexts in which the issues arise. It is necessary for PWRA to be interpreted in accordance with contemporary understanding of religion [pages 32-34]. Two judgments from other common law countries, one from the US Court of Appeals and one from the High Court of Australia, shed useful light on the issue [pages 35-49].

The High Court correctly decided that Scientology was a religion [page 50]. Religion should not be confined to faiths involving a supreme deity, since to do so would exclude Buddhism, Jainism, and others [page 51]. Moreover, it would involve the court in difficult theological territory: Scientologists do believe in a supreme deity, but one of abstract and impersonal nature [page 52]. It is not appropriate for the Registrar General or the courts to determine questions such as whether this belief constitutes a religion [53]. In a different context, the Charities Act 2006 states that "religion" includes religions not involving belief in a god [pages 54-55].

Religion could summarily be described as a belief system going beyond sensory perception or scientific data, held by a group of adherents, which claims to explain mankind's place in the universe and relationship with the infinite, and to teach its adherents how they are to live their lives in conformity with the spiritual understanding associated with the belief system [page 57]. On this approach to religion, Scientology was clearly a religion [page 60]. The question that followed was whether the appellants' church was a "place of meeting for religious worship".

"Religious worship" includes "religious services" as well as the Segerdal concept of veneration or adoration of a deity [pages 61-62]. This accords with the purpose of the statute: the authorisation to marry in conformity with one's faith should not depend on fine theological or liturgical niceties as to how believers see and express their relationship with the infinite [pages 63]. Since marriages on non-registered premises could not involve any form of "religious service", if Scientologists were unable to marry in their church they could not have a legal marriage in accordance with their faith [64]. Since the Church of Scientology held religious services, it follows that its church is a "place of meeting for religious worship", and the Registrar General is ordered to record it as such [page 65].

* The full UK Supreme Court decision can be read here (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat document): http://www.supremecourt.gov.uk/decided-cases/docs/UKSC_2013_0030_Judgmen...

* Law and Religion UK blog: http://www.lawandreligionuk.com

* 'Is Scientology a real religion?' (New Stateman magazine): http://www.newstatesman.com/nelson-jones/2013/12/scientology-real-religi...

* Scientology wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientology

[Ekk/3]

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