Scientology does not qualify for chapel registration, rules High Court

20 December 2012 by

pg13_2R on the application of Louisa Hodkin v Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages [2012] EWHC 3635 (Admin) – read judgment

Ouseley J has dismissed a challenge by the applicant against the Registrar General’s decision not to register a chapel of the Church of Scientology as ‘a place of meeting for religious worship’ which in turn means it is not a registered building for the solemnisation of marriages.

The following report is drawn from the Court’s press summary


Louisa Hodkin is a 23 year old Scientologist who wishes to marry her fiancé, also a Scientologist, at the London Church Chapel, a chapel of the Church of Scientology, in Queen Victoria Street, London. They are both volunteers there. She is the first Claimant. But the chapel is not registered under s2 of the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855 as a “place of meeting for religious worship”. It is therefore not a registered building within S26 of the Marriage Act 1949 and, unless registered under the 1855 Act, no application can be made under the 1949 Act for it to be registered for the solemnisation of marriages. S26 of the Marriage Act 1949 contains no prescription as to the form of service required for a marriage ceremony in a registered place of worship, registered for the solemnisation of marriages.

The Registrar found that she was bound to come to the conclusion she did by virtue of the decision of the Court of Appeal in R v Registrar General ex parte Segerdal [1970] 2 QB 697, which upheld her predecessor’s refusal to register another Scientologist chapel as a “place of meeting for religious worship.” Whether that was on the grounds that Scientology was not a religion or on the grounds that no worship was undertaken was a matter of dispute. In that case it was held that it was not a meeting place for religious worship because its services were instructions in the tenets of a philosophy concerned with man and were not concerned with religious worship. (paras 19 – 22)

The challenge was dismissed.

The court’s reasoning

After examining the ratio of Segerdal, Ouseley J concluded that Segerdal established that a place for religious worship could cover a place for “non-theistic religious worship”, but –

It does not decide whether Scientology is a religion or not; that issue is left open, though the Court’s doubts are clear. But, religion or no, it decides that Scientology services did not involve acts of worship. The Registrar General did not misunderstand this decision. She applied it. She did not refuse to register the chapel because Scientology if a religion, was not a theistic religion. She refused to register it and submitted that I was bound by Segerdal to uphold that refusal because, religion or not, theistic or otherwise, Scientologists did not “worship”.” (para 33)

The claimant submitted that Segerdal was no longer binding; that Scientology beliefs and services have evolved since that case had been decided. Ouseley J did not accept the argument. In his view, that case established an important principle:

…the Court of Appeal must be taken to have reached its conclusion on “worship” on the basis that it did not matter whether Scientology was a religion or not; its services were not “worship”. Therefore, in practice, it could make no difference to its decision, all of its doubts notwithstanding, if Scientology were found to be a religion, unless a substantial change in worship since 1967 was also found to have occurred. Such a change might show also that Scientology is a religion, given the intermingling of the issues, and that conclusion would not be precluded by the decision of the Court of Appeal since it made no finding on that issue. But it is on the question of a substantial change in “worship” that the Registrar General was right to focus.” (para 41)

The Court sets out a brief summary of Scientologist beliefs in paragraphs 42 – 50, with the judge accepting that other jurisdictions hold that Scientology is for various purposes a religion, non-theistic or theistic. However,

Notwithstanding the references to God, I do find it difficult to see it as a theistic religion. Once seen as a non-theistic religion however, and with the purpose of the 1855 Act in mind, a broad view should be taken of what constitutes a religion.” (paras 51 – 52)

Significantly, he did not find that there had been any ” significant change” in the beliefs of Scientologists or in their services since the decision in Segerdal.

Although the Claimants suggest there has been an evolution in the beliefs of Scientologists, at least up to the death of L Ron Hubbard in 1986, I have not seen any indication as to what that might be or how it could bear on any issue as to the nature of Scientology or the significance of its practices. It may be that there is more reference to God in their services, but there is no evidence of any development in its thinking about the nature of the Scientologist God or Supreme Being, or its relationship to Scientologists. They do not now believe in a God or Supreme Being in a way which is different from what they believed in the 1960s and 1970s.(para 67)

The fact that Scientology now describes itself in a way that places a greater emphasis on its being a religion, this was a matter of language and not of substance. The definition of “worship” in Segerdal was problematic. Not merely is it difficult to separate the concept of “worship” from the tenets of the religion, but the definition seems inapt to cover the non-theistic religions which the Court accepted are religions and which must be taken to “worship” for the purposes of the 1855 Act. Their “worship” is closer to a definition of worship as ceremonies, acts or prayers of a formal nature revering a power or principle regarded as supernatural or divine.

It may be that now a different approach to “religious worship” from that in Segerdal would and should be adopted. …. However, the decision of the Court of Appeal in that respect binds me. (paras 83 – 84)

This conclusion does not mean that the Act should be not interpreted in a way which gives a traditional religion greater legitimacy than a new one, or which requires a traditional form of worship, when the purpose of the Act can be met without such restrictions, and in a way which reflects the variety of religious beliefs now practised in England and Wales. Nonetheless the judge found himself bound by the Segerdal definition of “worship”. (para 85)

In his conclusion, the judge predicted the likelihood that forty years on from Segerdal, the Court of Appeal may find the route at least to reconsider its decision in Segerdal, with the fuller material now available. (para 102)

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  1. sharon wilson says:

    failings at all levels

  2. Andrew says:

    Spot on, James. The law already provides that no divorce is recognised if granted in the UK otherwise than by a court of civil jurisdiction – religious divorces are only valid if there is also a civil divorce – and the same should apply to marriage. All marriages in the UK should be by a Registrar; then, if you want, any religious ceremony you like.

    Religious ceremonies without a civil marriage should create no rights or duties whatsoever – this has indeed been the position of the Family Division in recent years and quite right too. In one case there was a “marriage” at the Moroccan Embassy followed by a religious divorce in Morocco: the court held that there was no marriage and that the divorce could not be recognised as an overseas divorce leading to ancillary relief.

    1. Adam Wagner says:

      Also, see this blog – quite an interesting twist on the situation in Israel

  3. James Wilson says:

    Thanks Adam and cheers for the tweets as well. There is something inherently wrong with judges having to sift through evidence and decide whether something is or is not a ‘religion’ and I cannot imagine either religious or secular people being happy with it, hence the idea of separating state and religion as far as possible. Technically this means disestablishment of the CofE, though to be honest that can fall into the category of ‘mostly harmless’ and be pushed down the list of priorities accordingly.

  4. James Wilson says:

    It is a well-written judgment and I do not have a quarrel with it legally, in the sense of saying that the law required the judge to find X instead of Y.

    I do think, however, that the case illustrates how we need to rethink the state’s involvement in marriage. If, for example, we adopted something like the French model, where the state does a formal process akin to issuing a driving licence – ie a set of criteria is listed along with a fee, and anyone satisfying both is legally married – but any actual celebration, religious or otherwise, takes place afterwards and elsewhere, then most problems like this or objections to gay marriage would fall away.

    As far as religious people would be concerned, only the ceremony taking place in accordance with their tenets would confer legitimacy on the marriage, and they would not be forced to conduct any form of ceremony anywhere.

    1. Adam Wagner says:

      James- I think you may be right. It does seem rather archaic (and uncomfortable) for judges to be deciding whether one group performs “religious worship”. The gay marriage law is a great opportunity to tackle this issue but the Government won’t tackle it head on because of the politics surrounding the establishment of the Church of England.

      Para 90 is interesting from the perspective of those who say Churches may be forced to perform gay marriages, or have to pay out human rights damages, which seems to me fanciful (although slightly less so now we have the “quadruple lock”):

      The Human Rights Act 1998 does not provide a basis upon which I can read the 1855 Act differently; it is not incompatible with the human rights of the Claimant. There is no interference with the right to marry according to national laws. There is no interference with the right of Scientologists to practise their religion, if such it is. There is no discrimination on the grounds of religion, assuming that Scientology is a religion.

  5. Mike says:

    Segerdal only applied a limited definition of “worship” and times have indeed changed in terms of acceptance of religious and cultural differences. The UK has been slow to allow Scientology religious status when other nations, perhaps less steeped in tradition, have allowed it.

    This definition from the Encyclopedia Britannica (2008) is good as it does away with the overly simplified idea of prayer books, pews and candles:
    broadly defined, the response to the appearance of that which is accepted as the holy-that is, to a sacred, transcendent power or being. Characteristic modes of response to the holy include cultic acts of all kinds: ritual drama, prayers of many sorts, dancing, ecstatic speech, veneration of various persons and objects, sermons, silent meditation, and sacred music and song. Also included in worship are acts of private response: spoken or unspoken prayers, silence, the assumption of particular postures, ritual acts and gestures, and individual acts of veneration of persons or objects.

    Scientology’s “sacred, transcendent power or being” is the concept of theta (the life force, soul, spirit, elan vital, etc.) which is immortal.

  6. For the record, this same line of reasoning was also used by the Charity Commission when it knocked back Scientology’s efforts to register as charity under ‘promotion of religion’.

    As a back-up, they also tried to register under general benefit to the community, which the CC also rejected on the grounds that Scientology is a private members’ club.

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