UKSC holds that the activities of the Church of Scientology are religious

This post was prepared from the UKSC’s press summaryFor a fuller discussion, see Scientology, religion and charity law: an analysis of R (Hodkin)

In R (Hodkin & Anor) v Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages [2013] UKSC 77 the Supreme Court has unanimously allowed the appeal of Ms Louisa Hodkin against the refusal of the Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages to record the Church of Scientology’s chapel in central London under section 2 of the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855, which provides that every “place of meeting for religious worship” may be certified to the Registrar General, who will cause that place of meeting to be recorded as such a place. Recording under the 1855 then entitles the building to be registered for the solemnisation of marriages under the Marriage Act 1949, which in turn enables the building to be used for marriage according to the “form and ceremony” chosen by the marrying couple (and, incidentally, it also confers total exemption from non-domestic rates).

The Registrar General had argued that she was bound by the judgment of the Court of Appeal  in R v Registrar General, ex parte Segerdal [1970] 2 QB 697 and therefore obliged to reject the application. In the Administrative Court, Ouseley J concluded, albeit with some reluctance, that because he remained bound by the definition of “religious worship” in Segerdal he was obliged to dismiss the appellants’ claim for judicial review even though the evidence suggested that Scientology was a religion.

The Supreme Court  allowed the appeal unanimously. The leading judgment was given by Lord Toulson and Lord Wilson added a concurring judgment on the issue of whether the Registrar General’s function in recording premises as “places of meeting for religious worship” was a matter for decision on the facts or a purely administrative one. On the point most likely to be of interest to readers of this blog, the interpretation of “religious worship” in Segerdal carried within it an implicitly theistic definition of religion: what the Court of Appeal had required was reverence for “God” (para 31). There had never been a universal legal definition of “religion” in English law and it was necessary for the 1855 Act to be interpreted in accordance with contemporary understanding of religion (paras 32-34]). Religion should not be confined to faiths involving a supreme deity (which, it should be remembered is what Lord Denning MR had attempted to do in Segerdal), since to do so would exclude Buddhism, Jainism, and others (para 51) and Scientologists did believe in a supreme deity, but a deity of abstract and impersonal nature (para 52).

In short, for the purposes of the 1855 Act Scientology had to be regarded as a religion and “religious worship” for the purposes of the Act included “religious services” as well as the Segerdal concept of veneration or adoration of a deity (paras 61-62).

Comment Given the comments of Ouseley J at first instance, and given also the inherent intellectual confusion in the original decision in Segerdal that Buddhism, though not Scientology, was a religion for the purposes of the 1855 Act even though it did not involve belief in a supreme being, the decision of the Supreme Court in Hodkin is not remotely unexpected. Presumably the next step will be for the Church of Scientology to ask the Charity Commission to revisit its previous refusal to register it as a charity in England and Wales. But the answer to that, of course, will depend on whether or not the Commission concludes that the Church of Scientology advances religion for the public benefit – which is a rather separate issue.

Postscript

The BBC reported that local government minister Brandon Lewis said that he was “very concerned” about the ruling and its implications for business rates and that Labour ministers had promised during the passing of the Equalities Act 2010 that Scientology would continue to fall outside the religious exemption for business rates:

“We will review the court’s verdict and discuss this with our legal advisers before deciding the next steps. However, it will remain the case that premises which are not genuinely open to the public will not qualify for tax relief.”

The UKSC has decided that a Scientology chapel is a “place of meeting for religious worship” registrable under the 1855 Act: as such, once registered it qualifies for mandatory total relief from business rates. But whether or not its activities are charitable is a separate issue. It is difficult to see what “next steps” the Government can take. It can’t appeal the UKSC’s decision; and legislation to reverse the ruling might well fall foul of Article 9 (religion) and A1P1 (peaceful enjoyment of property) ECHR. One suspects that Labour ministers gave assurances (if, indeed, they did give such assurances) on which they could not be certain of delivering.

2 thoughts on “UKSC holds that the activities of the Church of Scientology are religious

  1. Pingback: Religion and law round-up – 15th December | Law & Religion UK

  2. Pingback: Scientology, religion and charity law: an analysis of R (Hodkin) | Law & Religion UK

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