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Mormon temple denied rates exemption

02 May 2014

Restricted access: the Mormon temple in Preston, Lancashire, does not qualify for charity business-rates relief

Restricted access: the Mormon temple in Preston, Lancashire, does not qualify for charity business-rates relief

BUILDINGS used for "public religious worship" are exempt from business rates, but a Mormon temple in Lancashire to which only those considered "worthy" were admitted was denied that exemption, and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that this did not interfere with the exercise by the church members of their right to freedom of religion.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) has two temples in the UK: one in London, and the other in Preston, Lancashire. The temple is considered to be the house of the Lord, and one of the holiest places on earth; entry to the temple is restricted to the members who are deemed worthy, and who hold a "recommend" [a card that gives you permission to enter the temple for one year]. Congregational services at the Preston temple are attended by an average of 950 people a week.

Under the Local Government Finance Act 1988, premises used for charitable purposes are entitled to charity business-rates relief, which cuts the amount of rates payable by 80 per cent. Places of "public religious worship" are exempt from rates. The Preston temple has a liability to pay only 20-per-cent rates as a building used for charitable purposes, but it was refused the exemption reserved for places of "public religious worship".

The Mormon Church challenged the denial of that exemption. The Lancashire Valuation Tribunal granted the exemption, but the Lands Tribunal overturned that decision. The Mormon Church appealed unsuccessfully to the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords. It then complained to the ECHR, saying that the UK had violated its rights under the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

It argued that its temple worship should be treated with the same respect, and accorded the same tax-exempt treatment, as the worship facilities of the Church of England and of other denominations. Temple worship, by its very nature, as understood by its believers, required that only those who voluntarily lived by the kinds of commitments made in the temple should be allowed to participate, the Mormon Church said; and it was not a case of worship being made private for the purpose of being exclusive, or to provide private benefit.

It alleged that the denial of the full-rates exemption was a violation of its members' right to manifest their religious beliefs, and was therefore in breach of article 9 of the Convention. It further alleged that the levying of the business rate amounted to a deprivation of its possessions, and that that was discriminatory, because it applied to the Mormons and not to other religious organisations.

The Government said that any of the places of worship of the Mormon Church, such as its chapels, which were open to the public, had the benefit of the exemption. Church of England churches were usually open to the public, but its religious buildings run by closed orders or schools, or college chapels, might not be. Where such buildings were not open to the public they were not exempt from rates, the Government argued.

The ECHR said that the Mormon Church was not in a significantly different position from other churches because of its doctrine concerning worship in its temples, so as to call it differential treatment involving exemption from rates, since other faiths likewise did not allow public access to certain places of worship for doctrinal reasons.

Any prejudice caused to the Mormon Church by the operation of the 1988 Act was reasonably and objectively justified, the ECHR said. States had a certain margin of appreciation in deciding whether, and to what extent, interference was necessary, and had a wide margin when it came to general measures of social and economic strategy. That was because, given their direct knowledge of their society and its needs, national authorities were, in principle, better placed than international judges to appreciate what was "in the public interest", the ECHR said.

Neither in its objects nor in its effect did the 1988 Act have anything to do with the legitimacy of Mormon beliefs, the ECHR said. The Act was neutral, in that it was the same for all religious groups as regards the manifestation of religious beliefs in private, and produced exactly the same negative consequences for the officially established Christian Church in England.

The ECHR unanimously found that there had been no violation of the human rights of the Mormons. Two of the ECHR judges added that tax exemption was a privilege and not a right, and that the application of that privilege did not interfere with the exercise of the right to freedom of religion.

 

Man with 'delusional beliefs' can make tithing donation, rules judge

A MAN who believes that he is a prophet, second only in importance to the Holy Trinity, has been allowed to make a gift of £6900 to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) after a court ruled that his irrational beliefs do not prevent him from also holding to standard religious beliefs, writes Gavin Drake.

The 40-year-old, whose identity is protected by a court order and can be referred to only by the initials MS, suffers from bipolar affective disorder, schizophrenia, and schizoaffective disorder. He is subject to a Community Treatment order, and lives in supported accommodation. The local county council has been appointed as his deputy to protect his financial interests.

MS wanted to make the donation as a tithe from a bequest of £68,773. His mother opposed this, saying that "we have no idea how much pressure is put upon [MS] by his church to donate or tithe his money." A judge in the Court of Protection said that this was another way of saying that there was no evidence that any pressure had been applied.

The court heard from a consultant psychiatrist who said that MS's "beliefs about the tithe are an extension of his delusions, and stem directly from them". But, the judge said, MS described this position as showing "a lack of insight" into his faith, and that tithing was "an Old and New Testament principle that is practised in my church".

In a letter to the court, MS said that it was "busybodyism of a gross and outrageous sort . . . to deny me the sacred privilege of giving to my church as I see fit, and in accordance with my church's understanding of tithing".

The judge said that "sometimes, it can be difficult to distinguish between a religious delusion and a particular religious belief or practice. There is a risk of pathologising religious beliefs when listening to content alone.

"It is important to look at the degree of conviction, the pervasiveness of beliefs, the context of the individual's spiritual history, and deviations from conventional religious beliefs and practices when determining whether a religious belief is authentic or delusional."

On the question of tithing, the judge said: "It is not significant 'whether he was able to afford this' - a tithe is set at ten per cent, income tax rather higher. . . Nor is it necessarily significant whether all or most Christians now tithe."

The judge said that it was delusional for MS to believe that he was a prophet, but "that does not mean that all of his religious beliefs are delusional, or compromised by the presence of mental illness.

"The fact that a person has a grandiose belief with a religious content does not demonstrate that the whole of their religion is delusionally based and caused by mental illness. It may simply be that the content of their belief-system when they become ill reflects and accentuates pre-existing interests, concerns, and preoccupations: in this case, a concern with religious and moral themes."

The judge ruled that MS had the mental capacity to decide whether or not to tithe his inheritance, and allowed the gift to be made. 

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