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22 Dec

The writer has wondered for some time what the Church of Scientology has been up to (in the Courts, we mean – this is not a post about Tom Cruise, etc, etc) for the last few years. The UK Charity Commission’s 1999 decision to deny them charitable status (ie/esp as a body that advances religion) was comprehensive, but not exactly bulletproof: surely the Charities Act 2006 by broadening (arguably, at least) what counts as a religion had helped them – so why no word ?

Now we know – or at least we can theorise, courtesy of a High Court judgement noted by our friends at the UK Human Rights Blog. On one reading, paragraph 5 of Mr Justice Ouseley’s judgement says that the Scientologists are already recognised officially as a charity – but at the least it says that at least some local authorities treat it as charitable for local tax purposes. That may well answer our question: they have taken a piecemeal approach instead, persuading individual local authorities to treat them as charitable. Since the Church is wealthy and litigious, this cannot always have been a difficult decision: apparently HMRC also grant them VAT relief now too.

All of which – and we make no criticism of these tactics – set up nicely the current case: R on the application of Louisa Hodkin & CSREC v Registrar General of Births Deaths & Marriages (2012). There is a media summary here, and the actual Law Report here. The issue was whether the Scientology Chapel in question was “a place of meeting for religious worship” – which would enable it to be registered to carry out fully effective weddings in its own right. Of course, if they get to do their own weddings then they get to seem a lot more like a Church (Mosque, Temple, etc) – but they need to be accepted as a “a place of meeting for religious worship” first, which may seem a bit chicken-and-egg. Lord Lester (their lawyer) surely made much of that.

In fact, both the Registrar and the Judge considered themselves bound by a 1970 Court of Appeal (CA) authority on a similar point, R v Registrar General ex parte Segerdal. Thus the write-up in the Metro about their going to the Supreme Court (SC) – only the SC can overrule the CA.

In Segerdal the CA treated there as being two major issues, which then needed to be combined:
(1) Was Scientology a religion ?
(2) Was what happens in its Chapels ‘worship’ ?

The CA had not formally decided about (1) – although Mr Justice Ouseley discerned doubts. Their main point had been (2) – that what Scientologists did at their gatherings was not ‘worship.’ As to (1), it seems the Judge might have been sympathetic, but he still seemed to think (2) problematic, claims that Scientology beliefs have developed since Segerdal notwithstanding.

We will hear more of this: in the meantime, the Charity Commission’s decision tables confirm that the Commission is still inclined to contest ‘religious’ groups’ claims to be a religion rather than a philosophy if their beliefs seem excessively vague or their practices not especially religious.

However, these do both seem questions of degree rather than quality, so it may be that the Scientologists are not so far from recognition as a religion after all. It is the writer’s impression that they do have reasonably definite beliefs, although these are not very widely known (it is sometimes suggested that you learn more as you advance/pay more), and the Chapel services (note ‘Chapel’) are evidently meant to mimic a Church service (they even have a ‘Scientology cross,’ it seems), although the Judge’s impression seems to be that they do not as yet do so very closely – but what is ‘closely enough’ ?

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