Louisa Hodkin and her fiancé Alessandro Calcioli are Scientologists and they want to marry in a Church of Scientology chapel in central London. However, the chapel is not registered under s 2 of the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855 as a “place of meeting for religious worship” and is therefore not a “registered building” within s 26(1)(a) of the Marriage Act 1949. Because it is not registered under the 1855 Act, no application can be made under the 1949 Act for it to be registered for the solemnisation of marriages. When in May 2011 the Church of Scientology Religious Education College Inc (the second claimant and owner of the chapel) applied to the Registrar General for its registration as a place of meeting for religious worship under the 1855 Act she refused on the grounds that the chapel was not, in fact, a place for “religious worship”.
In R (Hodkin) & Anor v Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages  EWHC 3635 (Admin) the Registrar justified her decision on the grounds that she was bound by the previous decision of the Court of Appeal in R v Registrar General ex parte Segerdal  2 QB 697 (of which Philip Jones has posted a helpful summary) which had upheld her predecessor’s refusal to register another Scientologist chapel as a “place of meeting for religious worship.” She pointed out that the couple could be married in the chapel in whatever form of ceremony they chose, provided that they were also married in a civil ceremony. Equally, Scientologists could apply to have their chapels approved for civil marriage ceremonies – but not, under the present law, for religious ones. Whether or not the judgment of the Court of Appeal in Segerdal was on the grounds that Scientology was not a religion or on the grounds that no worship was undertaken was a matter of dispute; but the Registrar General submitted that both she and the Administrative Court were equally bound by the Court of Appeal’s decision.
The claimants argued that even if Segerdal was binding it did not preclude the Administrative Court from finding on the evidence that the London chapel was a place of religious worship on various grounds:
- the understanding of Scientology as a religion had developed since 1970;
- further, better and updated evidence was now available and a more expansive approach was now required to the meaning of a place “for religious worship” in what was now a more obviously multi-faith society;
- the effect of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010 meant that the distinction drawn by the Court of Appeal between Buddhism and Scientology was no longer tenable; and
- the Registrar General’s practice of registering Buddhist and Jain temples as places of religious worship but not registering Scientology chapels was discriminatory.
In short, life had moved on since 1970 and a different and broader approach was now required to the 1855 Act.
The situation was further complicated by the fact that in 1999 the Charity Commission had examined the beliefs and practices of the Church of Scientology and had rejected its application for registration as a charity established for the advancement of religion. The decision of the Commissioners was that, though Scientology was a religion because it believed in a Supreme Being, its services (which included auditing and training) did not constitute “worship” according to the Segerdal criteria. And
“… the crucial point on which the Court of Appeal held against the registration of Scientology chapels concerned “worship” not “religion”. The Charity Commission report does not advance either side’s case, beyond the factual material it contains” (paragraph 88).
Ouseley J was unconvinced that Scientology had moved on very much since Segerdal:
“It may be that there is more reference to God in their services, but there is no evidence of any development in its thinking about the nature of the Scientologist God or Supreme Being, or its relationship to Scientologists. They do not now believe in a God or Supreme Being in a way which is different from what they believed in the 1960s and 1970s” (paragraph 67).
Even so, though he dismissed the application he appeared to have some misgivings about doing so:
“100. While I can accept that the 1855 Act should be given an interpretation which reflects the way in which religions are regarded at the present, and not how they would have been regarded in 1855, and that what constitutes worship should be treated in the same way, the words still have to be given effect. The words a ‘place of meeting for religious worship’ must still be applied. I cannot thereby evade the decision in Segerdal. On the evidence, the acts of worship have not changed significantly, and so it remains binding.
101. The definition of worship in Segerdal, inadequate though it may be for non-theistic and similar beliefs, nonetheless applies to them. Without Segerdal, an updating interpretation might have been possible. But Segerdal, in the absence of a significant change in the way Scientologists worship, still binds me to hold that they do not worship. Even if in principle, an updating interpretation can be applied to an otherwise binding decision on the statutory interpretation and application of the Act, I do not think that times have moved on to the extent required to make Segerdal no longer binding”.
That said, however, he concluded with an open invitation to appeal his decision:
“102. … Forty years on from Segerdal, the Court of Appeal may find the route at least to reconsider its decision in Segerdal, with the fuller material now available”.
Comment: While there was no way that Ouseley J could have avoided following Segerdal, one cannot help wondering whether the view of “worship” advanced in Segerdal might not have been unduly restrictive even by the standards of 1970. How, for example, could it have been applied to zazen (sitting meditation) in Zen Buddhist practice? Equally, one doubts very much whether Denning MR or Winn LJ had ever spent an hour in a completely silent Quaker Meeting for Worship (unlike the author of this post).
Lord Denning’s explanation at 707B does little to advance the case:
“It connotes to my mind a place of which the principal use is as a place where people come together as a congregation or assembly to do reverence to God. It need not be the God which the Christians worship. It may be another God, or an unknown God, but it must be reverence to a deity. There may be exceptions. For instance, Buddhist temples are properly described as places of meeting for religious worship. But, apart from exceptional cases of that kind,it seems to me the governing idea behind the words ‘place of meeting for religious worship’ is that it should be a place for the worship of God. I am sure that would be the meaning attached by those who framed this legislation in 1855”.
With enormous respect to one of the greatest common lawyers of my lifetime, the problem with that statement is that once you have admitted the exception you have blown a gaping hole in your own argument. If Buddhism, why not Scientology? Moreover, while I am sure that Lord Denning was right his interpretation of the intentions of the draftsmen in 1855, are we still bound by their intentions some 150 years later?
Whichever way it goes, the appeal judgment will make fascinating reading.