Several states within the Council of Europe operate systems of registration for religious groups; however, though this is a long-established practice in many jurisdictions, the ECtHR is becoming increasingly suspicious, on Article 9 grounds, of failures by states parties either to register religious groups or to grant them legal personality on what can sometimes look like arbitrary or capricious grounds.
The facts in brief
In Church of Scientology of St Petersburg & Ors v Russia  ECHR 1019 the applicants were an unincorporated group of Russian citizens formed for the collective study of Scientology and six individual members who complained about the authorities’ refusal to register their Scientology group as a legal entity.
Between March 1995 and August 2003 the group had submitted six applications for registration. The registration authorities rejected all of them, each time citing new grounds for their refusal. The most recent refusal had referred in particular to the alleged unreliability of a document confirming that the group had been in existence for 15 years: a legal requirement under Russian law for any new religious group to be registered. In October 2003 the applicants challenged the refusals; and in December 2005 the St Petersburg District Court held that the refusal to register the group had been lawful, citing defects in the document confirming its existence for 15 years. That judgment was upheld on appeal in May 2006.
Relying in particular on Article 9 ECHR (freedom of thought, conscience, and religion) interpreted in the light of Article 11 (freedom of assembly and association), the applicants complained that the refusal to register their group had been arbitrary.
The Court reiterated that the ability to establish a legal entity in order to act collectively in a field of mutual interest was one of the most important aspects of freedom of association under Article 11; moreover, where the organisation of a religious community had been in issue, a refusal to recognise it as a legal entity had also been found to constitute an interference with freedom of religion under Article 9, as exercised by both the community itself and by its individual members  [for which see Religionsgemeinschaft der Zeugen Jehovas and Ors v Austria  ECHR 762 and Metropolitan Church of Bessarabia and Ors v Moldova  ECHR 518]. Moreover, under Russia’s Religions Act a religious group without legal personality could not rent property, maintain bank accounts, establish places of worship, hold religious services in places accessible to the public or produce, obtain and distribute religious literature .
None of the grounds invoked by the domestic courts for rejecting the confirmation document had been based on an accessible and foreseeable interpretation of domestic law – so the refusal to register failed the “prescribed by law” test . Where it had been shown that an interference was not in accordance with the law, it was not necessary to investigate whether it also pursued a “legitimate aim” or was “necessary in a democratic society”:
“Nevertheless, the Court considers it important to reaffirm its position that the lengthy waiting period which a religious organisation has to endure prior to obtaining legal personality cannot be considered ‘necessary in a democratic society’ ” 
There had therefore been a violation of Article 9 of the Convention, interpreted in the light of Article 11.
This is the latest in a long line of cases on registration, in almost all of which the Court has found in favour of the applicants.
In England and Wales, registration under the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855 relates to matters such as exemption from business rates and registering to solemnise marriages – you don’t need to register the building merely in order to worship in it. And there’s no equivalent at all in Scotland. Similarly, in all three UK jurisdictions a religious group may register as a charity (and should so register if its purposes are charitable, which they almost certainly will be). But that does not prevent a group of people from holding regular meetings for religious worship without notifying the charity regulators – still less the local authority or the police.
All of which leads me to wonder about the precise purpose of registration of religious groups in jurisdictions such as Russia and Austria. Is its purpose to ensure legal certainty for those third parties who deal with such groups? Is it merely an obsessive pursuit of administrative tidiness? Or is there some more sinister motive? And then there’s Hungary and the Church Act 2011, which the Government said was designed, inter alia, to curb the abuse of state subsidies by certain religious groups and which has already given rise to an adverse judgment in Magyar Keresztény Mennonita Egyház and Ors v Hungary  ECHR 552 – about which we posted at the time.
For an even more jaundiced view than mine, see David Hart’s post on UKHRB: Another Strasbourg judgment which Putin may wish to ignore – Scientologists win