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?

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.

A Church of Scientology community centre. Photo: Getty.
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Are there “tens of thousands” who still don't have their Labour leadership ballot paper?

Word has it that swathes of eligible voters have yet to receive their ballot papers, suggesting there is still all to play for in the Labour leadership contest. But is it true?

Is there still all to play for in the Labour leadership contest?

Some party insiders believe there is, having heard whispers following the bank holiday weekend that “tens of thousands” of eligible voters have yet to receive their ballot papers.

The voting process closes next Thursday (10 September), and today (1 September) is the day the Labour party suggests you get in touch if you haven’t yet been given a chance to vote.

The impression here is that most people allowed to vote – members, registered supporters, and affiliated supporters – should have received their voting code over email, or their election pack in the post, by now, and that it begins to boil down to individual administrative problems if they’ve received neither by this point.

But many are still reporting that they haven’t yet been given a chance to vote. Even Shabana Mahmood MP, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, still hasn’t received her voting pack, as she writes on the Staggers, warning us not to assume Jeremy Corbyn will win. What’s more, Mahmood and her team have heard anecdotally that there are still “tens of thousands” who have been approved to vote who have yet to receive their ballot papers.

It’s important to remember that Mahmood is an Yvette Cooper supporter, and is using this figure in her piece to argue that there is still all to play for in the leadership race. Also, “tens of thousands” is sufficiently vague; it doesn’t give away whether or not these mystery ballot-lacking voters would really make a difference in an election in which around half a million will be voting.

But there are others in the party who have heard similar figures.

“I know people who haven’t received [their voting details] either,” one Labour political adviser tells me. “That figure [tens of thousands] is probably accurate, but the party is being far from open with us.”

“That’s the number we’ve heard, as of Friday, the bank holiday, and today – apparently it is still that many,” says another.

A source at Labour HQ does not deny that such a high number of people are still unable to vote. They say it’s difficult to work out the exact figures of ballot papers that have yet to be sent out, but reveal that they are still likely to be, “going out in batches over the next two weeks”.

A Labour press office spokesperson confirms that papers are still being sent out, but does not give me a figure: “The process of sending out ballot papers is still under way, and people can vote online right up to the deadline on September 10th.”

The Electoral Reform Services is the independent body administrating the ballot for Labour. They are more sceptical about the “tens of thousands” figure. “Tens of thousands? Nah,” an official at the organisation tells me.

“The vast majority will have been sent an email allowing them to vote, or a pack in one or two days after that. The idea that as many as tens of thousands haven’t seems a little bit strange,” they add. “There were some last-minute membership applications, and there might be a few late postal votes, or a few individuals late to register. [But] everybody should have definitely been sent an email.”

Considering Labour’s own information to voters suggests today (1 September) is the day to begin worrying if you haven’t received your ballot yet, and the body in charge of sending out the ballots denies the figure, these “tens of thousands” are likely to be wishful thinking on the part of those in the party dreading a Corbyn victory.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.