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‘Scientology is a religion’

20 December 2013


Wedding-planners: Louisa Hodkin and Alessandro Calcioli

Wedding-planners: Louisa Hodkin and Alessandro Calcioli

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 territory.

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 religious discrimination.

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 religious worship".

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 groups.

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 marriages.

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