Scientology case has judges debating the meaning of religion

20 07 2013
By Owen Bowcott, legal affairs correspondent of The Guardian

Grand opening of the Church of Scientology of London, UK, October 2006

Grand opening of the Church of Scientology of London, UK, October 2006

Case is brought by Louisa Hodkin, who wishes to marry her fiance in the Church of Scientology’s building in London

Five supreme court justices have spent a day wrestling with notions of God, nirvana and what constitutes worship in an attempt to decide whether Scientologists may conduct weddings.

In one of the more curious appeals to come before the UK’s highest court, senior lawyers – wearing puzzled expressions, and bemused smiles but no wigs – ranged across centuries of legislation and a number of faiths to try to establish what religion is.

The case has been brought by Louisa Hodkin, who wishes to marry her fiance, Alessandro Calcioli, in the Church of Scientology’s building on Queen Victoria Street in the City of London.

The registrar-general of births, deaths and marriages has declined to license the Scientologists’ “chapel” as a place of meeting for religious worship under section two of the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855. Hodkin and her partner, who are volunteers at the Church of Scientology, claim the refusal is discriminatory. At a previous hearing, the court of appeal rejected their application.

Wigs and gowns are rarely worn in the supreme court in Westminster these days. On Thursday, the air of intellectual informality was enhanced by the eccentricity of the issues. On one hand was James Strachan QC, for the registrar-general. Scientology, he told the court, was initially founded by the American writer L Ron Hubbard as “dianetics” – a process of self-discovery. Scientology did not describe itself as a religion until 1951. Its eighth level of perfection, Strachan said, was a state of “infinity”. “The process of Scientology is not about worshiping God, infinity or a supreme being,” he said. “It’s about auditing, training and developing self-awareness. The judge [in the courts below] had difficulty in understanding whether it might be a theistic religion.”

Strachan, however, insisted Scientology did not qualify as religion: “It does not involve worship of a divine being. The central processes of Scientology are not about reverence or veneration. It’s about constructing the self.”

Scientologists do refer to a “creed” and “sermons”, he conceded, “but it’s not religious worship. If the registrar-general has wrongly registered Buddhists or Jains [other faiths that do not worship gods] then they should be de-registered. The argument that it’s discrimination [against Scientology] goes nowhere.”

Against him was Lord Lester, the veteran Liberal Democrat peer, who pointed out that the Church of Scientology already enjoys “charitable rates relief” on its London headquarters worth £300,000 a year.

Scientology was akin to Buddhism, he implied. “[The Buddhist principle of] nirvana is not venerated as a being or power that is supernatural or divine. In Scientology, L Rob Hubbard is not venerated.”

In other jurisdictions, such as Australia, Scientology has been accepted as a religious denomination. The refusal to register the chapel was religious discrimination, Lord Lester insisted.

The five supreme court justices – Lord Neuberger, Lord Clarke, Lord Wilson, Lord Reed and Lord Toulson – brought in Islam, Unitarianism, Quakerism and other faiths to develop comparisons.

“A Quaker service often consists only of silent meditation,” one justice observed.

The appeal is of wider significance since Scientologists have applied for certification at other premises in England that they claim are used for religious worship.

Speaking after an earlier judgment, Hodkin said: “I hope the court allows me to marry in my own church, surrounded by my family and friends, which means everything to me.”

The court has reserved judgment. At the end of the hearing, Lord Lester tried a note of religious reconciliation: “Nirvana,” he explained, “is a state which an individual attains, the state your lordships attain quite often at the end of a case.”

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Scientology case in UK to be reconsidered

20 12 2012


Belfast Telegraph, December 19, 2012 – Leading UK judges may decide whether services organised by the Church of Scientology involve “acts of worship”. Scientologist Louisa Hodkin lost a High Court fight for the right to marry fiance Alessandro Calcioli in a Church of Scientology chapel in central London.

A High Court judge concluded that the couple could not marry in the London Church Chapel, in Queen Victoria Street, because it was not legally a “place of meeting for religious worship”.

But Mr Justice Ouseley said Supreme Court justices – the most senior judges in the UK – should consider the question of whether Scientologists worshiped and decide whether they wanted to rule on the issue.

Miss Hodkin, 24, who, like her fiance, is a volunteer at the London Church Chapel, said she was pleased that the Supreme Court had been asked to consider the case.

“I knew I would have to be strong and patient given the current law,” she said after today’s High Court hearing in London. “I am delighted that the court has granted me the opportunity to ask the Supreme Court to hear my case. I hope that the court allows me to marry in my own church, surrounded by my family and friends, which means everything to me.”

Her solicitor, Paul Hewitt, who works for law firm Withers, said: “It has always felt wrong that, simply because she is a member of the Church of Scientology, Louisa has been denied the right given to Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jains and other faiths to have a legal marriage ceremony in accordance with her own religious beliefs and in her own church.” He added: “Louisa is determined to see the process through to achieve this basic right.”

Mr Justice Ouseley ruled after hearing legal argument at a High Court hearing in London in October. He was told that Miss Hodkin launched a challenge after the registrar general of births, deaths and marriages refused to register the London Church Chapel for the solemnization of marriages under the 1855 Places of Worship Registration Act – because it was not a place for “religious worship”. The judge said the issue had been considered by the Court of Appeal in 1970. He said appeal judges had decided that Scientology services “did not involve acts of worship” – and he said he was bound by that decision. He said he therefore had to dismiss Miss Hodkin’s challenge.

“In my judgment there has been no significant change in the beliefs of Scientologists or in their services since (that) decision,” said Mr Justice Ouseley in a written ruling handed down at a hearing in London today. “(That ruling), in the absence of a significant change in the way Scientologists worship, still binds me to hold that they do not worship.”

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