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Is Scientology a real religion? The UK Supreme Court says so

The controversial group has been recognised as religion and may now conduct wedding ceremonies – what now for organisations such as the British Humanist Association?

A Church of Scientology community centre. Photo: Getty.

So Scientologist Luisa Hodkin can have her dream wedding. The Supreme Court's decision to recognise Scientology as a religion - and its ceremonies as "religious worship" for the purpose of marriage law - won't delight those who regard Scientology as an exploitative cult or a money-making scam. But today's ruling is more than just a victory for followers of L Ron Hubbard's controversial church. In allowing Luisa Hodkin to get married in a Scientology chapel, the court had to abandon earlier, rather narrow definitions of what constituted religion and worship in favour of something much less clearly articulated. And that may turn out to have significant implications.

The bar on the legal registration of weddings conducted according to the rites of the Church of Scientology dates back to the Segerdal case of 1970. In it, the Court of Appeal led by Lord Denning decided that the Church of Scientology couldn't constitute a religion for legal purposes because it was insufficiently focussed on "reverence to a deity". It was, thought Denning, more akin to a philosophy. Nor were its ceremonies religious, he went on, because Scientologists did not "humble themselves in reverence and recognition of the dominant power and control of any entity or being outside their own body or life".

Denning admitted that some well-established religions, for example Buddhism, might not easily pass the test of "reverence to a deity". But he regarded that as an "exceptional case".

The clear message in today's judgement is that these definitions of religion and worship, based as they are largely on the Christian model, are no longer appropriate in a religiously plural society. Ideas about God, noted Lord Toulson, were more properly the stuff of "theological debate" than questions for the law to unravel. Instead of worrying about whether or not the object of veneration of a group calling itself a religion fits into conventional ideas of what a god is, Toulson adopted a fairly ad hoc test. For him, religion was to be described, rather than defined, as "a spiritual or non-secular belief system, held by a group of adherents, which claims to explain mankind's place in the universe and relationship with the infinite, and to teach its adherents how they are to live their lives in conformity with the spiritual understanding associated with the belief system".

Scientology, whatever you think of it, ticks all these boxes. Slightly more controversial, to some, was Toulson's comparison of Scientology to Buddhism, in that both systems aim at achieving enlightment. Buddhism has an Eightfold Path, while L Ron Hubbard's system is "aimed ultimately at complete affinity with the eigth dynamic or infinity". It's worth noting here that the judgement takes its information about Scientology entirely from materials submitted by a minister at the chapel that requested registration, Laura Wilks, rather than, say, the more critical account recently published by the BBC's John Sweeney. It was an analysis of marriage law rather than the pros and cons of David Miscavige's international organisation.

An important question, at least in 1970, was whether what goes on in a Scientology chapel (or anywhere used by a group calling itself a religion) constitutes religious "worship". The law governing marriage was explicitly concerned with worship rather than the definition of religion - hence Lord Denning's concern with "veneration". The Supreme Court rather sidestepped this issue. It declared that the previous concept of worship was "unduly narrow" but failed to define worship at all, beyond the somewhat tautological definition of "religious service" or "religious rites and ceremonies." So worship is whatever religious people do when they get together ... "to enquire any further would be the province of theology rather than law".

Importantly, Toulson insisted on keeping a distinction between religion and non-religious or secular philosophies. Religion did not require supernatural beliefs, but it did imply a belief that there was "more to be understood about mankind's nature and relationship to the universe than can be gained from the senses or from science". This is potentially highly significant. Recent law - for example, in the Equality Act 2010, or in the understanding of freedom of belief under the Human Rights Act - has tended to elide the distinction between religion and other philosophical world-views. In 2009, for example, a judge held that an employee's deeply-held belief in the danger of catastrophic climate change should be protected under anti-discrimination legislation as being akin to a religious belief

The British Humanist Association has argued that its members face discrimination because it is unable (in England and Wales) to conduct legally valid weddings. Thus, unlike religious believers, humanists can’t get married according to their own values or beliefs, which in most other respects qualify for equal legal protection. Humanists can, of course, avail themselves of civil ceremonies, choosing their preferred words, music and readings - so long as the legal formalities are observed. A key contention made by the BHA, however, is that the ban on any religious content in civil ceremonies must apply to humanism on the grounds that it is a belief system. A BHA submission to Parliament suggests that “some registrars are using this interpretation to threaten hotels and the like that they may lose their registration as approved premises for civil weddings if they also host non-statutory humanist weddings”.

But that doesn’t seem to be Lord Toulson’s understanding. His explicit reason for defining religion so as to exclude purely secular philosophies is that the latter are already fully catered to under the rules for civil marriage. Unlike religious believers, they are free to adopt any form of ceremony they see fit. If the ban remained, however, Scientologists would be prevented “from being married anywhere in a form which involved use of their marriage service”. They would therefore be “under a double disability, not shared by atheists, agnostics or most religious groups. This would be illogical, discriminatory or unjust.”

After winning a last-minute concession during the passage of the Same Sex Couples Act, Humanists in England and Wales may well be given the right to conduct their own marriage ceremonies. Which is fair enough. But if humanism is not akin to a religion for the purposes of marriage law, which is the clear implication of Lord Toulson’s ruling, it’s not clear why they should be allowed to conduct weddings while members of other non-religious organisations (such as fan clubs, political parties or sports associations) have to go choose between a church and a civil registrar.

Some would say that the whole concept of religious registration of marriage is a hangover from an earlier era when the church claimed dominion over people’s family and sexual arrangements. Following today’s ruling, the law no longer insists that a religion has to include belief in God. This must however raise the question of why a concept so nebulous and elastic should give rise to the ability to proclaim, with binding force, that two people are legally married.