Supreme Court ruling on Church of Scientology could affect legal meaning of religion, Charity Commission says

The commission says it will consider the implications after the ruling that a Scientology chapel is a place of religious worship

Supreme Court
Supreme Court

The Church of Scientology has said it should be treated like other religions after the Supreme Court ruled one of its chapels was a place of religious worship.

Most other religions have charitable status, but the Charity Commission in 1999 rejected the Church of Scientology’s application for charitable status on the grounds it was not a religion and did not advance the public benefit.

The commission said yesterday that the Supreme Court decision could affect the meaning of religion and religious worship in the context of charity law and said it was considering the ruling.

The Supreme Court case was brought by Louisa Hodkin after she was told that a Church of Scientology chapel in central London could not be used to conduct weddings.  

Five Supreme Court judges ruled yesterday that the church was a place of meeting for religious worship and that she should be able to get married there. They ruled that religion did not have to involve worshipping a god.

Asked if the church would re-apply in the light of today’s ruling, a spokesman for the Church of Scientology said it was registered already in Australia and had been advised it could not also register in the UK.

"We are extremely pleased that the Supreme Court has ruled that Scientologists can now get married in their own church," he said.

"The ruling shows that time has moved on and that Scientologists are entitled to be treated in an equal and fair fashion, on the same footing as any other religious group."

A spokeswoman for the Charity Commission said: "Our previous decision on charitable status was about promoting religious education for the public benefit. It’s a decision we’ll need to look at.

"Although this Supreme Court judgment did not directly concern the meaning of charity, it affects the legal meaning of religion and religious worship. These have the potential to affect their meaning in charity law. The Commission is considering the impact of the judgment in that context."

Julian Smith, a partner and charity specialist at the law firm Farrer & Co, said the ruling gave Scientologists a "much better set of arguments" if they wanted to submit a new application for charitable status.

"But what a religion is for the purposes of registering a place of worship for marriage is not necessarily the same as what a religion is for charitable purposes. It is dangerous to leap too quickly to any conclusions about the degree of impact it might have in the realm of charity."

Tim Rutherford, partner in charities team at IBB Solicitors, said the ruling would add considerable weight to any attempt by the Church of Scientology to advance the argument that any charity was for the advancement of religion.

But he said that the other obstacle that the church failed to overcome in 1999 was that it was operating for the public benefit.

"The manner in which Scientologists carry out their activities was considered to be too private to demonstrate any public benefit," he said. "This is interesting because, if this is the remaining hurdle to the Church of Scientology registering as a charity, they will clearly be interested to see the outcome of the Preston Down case which is currently before the charity tribunal."

The Preston Down Trust, a Plymouth Brethren congregation in Devon, is involved in a legal battle with the Charity Commission over the regulator’s refusal to grant it charitable status. Its charity tribunal appeal against the decision is on hold until at least 6 January.

"If the Plymouth Brethren establish that they can demonstrate public benefit in their activities, this might open the door to the Church of Scientology to have a further attempt at registering as a charity on the back of today's case," said Rutherford. 

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