SCIENTOLOGY is a religion that involves religious worship, and
its church building in London must be registered as a place for the
solemnisation of marriages, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously
last week. The ruling overturned a precedent set by the Court of
Appeal in 1970, that only those religions that believed in a
supreme deity should be recognised by the law as a "religion".
The appeal to the Supreme Court was brought by Louisa Hodkin, a
Scientologist. Miss Hodkin and Alessandro Calcioli wished to be
married in the Scientology Church that they regularly attend at 146
Queen Victoria Street, London (News, 2 August). In a similar case
in 1970, relating to Michael Segerdal and a different church within
the Church of Scientology, the Court of Appeal ruled that it was
not a "place of meeting for religious worship" under section 2 of
the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855, because Scientology
was not a "religion". The result was that a valid ceremony of
marriage could not be conducted in a Scientology church.
When a trustee of the Church of Scientology at Queen Victoria
Street applied to have the premises registered as a building for
the solemnisation of marriages, the Registrar General refused, and
said he was bound by the decision in the Segerdal case. Since that
case was a decision of the Court of Appeal, it was binding on the
High Court, but could be overruled by the Supreme Court. The
central question in the Supreme Court in Miss Hodkin's case was
whether the decision in Segerdal should be overruled.
In the Segerdal case, Lord Denning said that the phrase "a place
of meeting for religious worship" connoted a place where a
congregation came together "to do reverence to God". It did not
need to be the God that Christians worshipped: it could be "another
God, or an unknown God, but it must be reverence to a deity". There
could be exceptions, such as Buddhist temples, but, apart from
exceptional cases, it had to be a place for the worship of God.
Lord Denning held that Scientology was "more a philosophy for
the existence of man or of life rather than a religion," since
there was "no veneration of God or of a Supreme Being".
The Supreme Court did not agree. Lord Toulson said that unless
there was "some compelling contextual reason for holding otherwise,
religion should not be confined to religions which recognise a
supreme deity". To do so would be a form of religious
discrimination unacceptable today. The need to make exceptions for
Buddhism, which had been applied also to Jainism and Theosophy, and
the absence of a satisfactory explanation for that exception, were
powerful indications, Lord Toulson said, that there was "something
unsound in the supposed general rule".
Further, to confine "religion" to a religion that involved a
belief in a "supreme deity" led into difficult theological
The Supreme Court rejected the argument that the expression
"religious worship" in the 1855 Act showed that Parliament intended
"religious" to be given a narrow interpretation. The language of
section 2 showed an intentionally broad sweep. It included
"Protestant Dissenters or other Protestants", "persons professing
the Roman Catholic religion", "persons professing the Jewish
religion", and "any other body or denomination of persons".
It might be, Lord Toulson said, that the members of the
legislature in 1855 would not have had in mind adherence to other
faiths such as Buddhism, but that was no ground for holding that
they were intended to be excluded from legislation passed to remove
For the purposes of the 1855 Act, religion was, Lord Toulson
said, "a spiritual or non-secular belief-system, 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".
Spiritual or non-secular meant a belief system that went "beyond
that which can be perceived by the senses, or ascertained by the
application of science". Such a belief system might or might not
involve a belief in a supreme being, but it did "involve a belief
that there is more to be understood about mankind's nature . . .
than can be gained from the senses or from science".
On that interpretation of religion, the evidence was sufficient
to show that Scientology was within it. The issue then was whether
the chapel at Queen Victoria Street was "a place of meeting for
The meaning given to worship in the Segerdal case was unduly
narrow, but, even if it was not unduly narrow in 1970, it was
narrow now, the Supreme Court said. The broader interpretation of
the expression "religious worship" accorded with the purpose of the
statute in permitting members of a religious congregation, who had
a meeting place where they performed their religious rites, to
carry out religious ceremonies of marriage there.
Their authorisation to do so should not depend on fine
theological or liturgical niceties as to how precisely they saw and
expressed their relationship with the infinite - referred to by
Scientologists as "God" in their creed and universal prayer. Those
matters were more fitting for theologians than for the Registrar
General or the courts, Lord Toulson said.
If Scientology came within the meaning of a religion, but its
chapel could not be registered under the 1855 Act, the result would
be to prevent Scientologists from being married anywhere in a form
that involved use of their marriage service.
They could have a service in their chapel, but it would not be a
legal marriage, and they could have a service on other "approved
premises", such as a hotel, but in that case they were prohibited
by section 46B(4) of the Marriage Act 1949 from incorporating any
form of religious service. They would therefore be under a double
disability not shared by atheists, agnostics, or most religious
That would be "illogical, discriminatory, and unjust", Lord
Toulson said, because when Parliament prohibited the use of any
religious service on approved premises, it could only have been on
the assumption that any religious service of marriage could
lawfully be held at a meeting place for religious services
registered under the 1855 Act.
The Supreme Court overruled the decision in the Segerdal case,
and ordered the Registrar General to register the chapel at 146
Queen Victoria Street as a place for the solemnisation of