British Supreme Court rules that Scientology is a religion

December 12, 2013 • 6:35 am

I have mixed feelings about this one.

Following a five-year battle in lower courts, the British Supreme Court has ruled that Scientology is a religion. It started when an English dupe woman, Louisa Hodkin, wanted to get married in the Scientology chapel in London. This was disallowed, for British law defines religion as involving worship of a supreme being.  Now we all know that Xenu was Master of the Universe, but you don’t get to worship him—or even know about him until you’ve sunk several hundred thou in the organization and become privy to its innermost secrets.

The Torygraph reports:

Miss Hodkin launched a legal challenge after the Registrar General of births, deaths and marriages refused to register the chapel to conduct marriages because it was not recognised as a place of “religious worship”.

That decision stemmed from a 1970 court case which excluded scientology because it did not fit within the terms of the 1855 Places of Worship Registration Act which counts only groups which revere a “deity” as true religions.

But even in the 1970 case Lord Denning observed that Buddhist temples are already treated as an “exception”.

Miss Hodkin’s legal challenge was initially turned down by Mr Justice Ouseley at the High Court last year on the basis of the legal definition but he immediately passed the case to the Supreme Court to reassess the law.

. . . The court heard that although scientologists use the word “God” in services, the term is understood to mean “inifinity” [sic] and not a specific being.

So what is the new definition of “religion” in British law? The President of the Supreme Court (the equivalent of the U.S. Chief Justice) announced the opinion:

“Unless there is some compelling contextual reason for holding otherwise, religion should not be confined to religions which recognise a supreme deity,” said Lord Toulson, delivering the lead judgment.

“First and foremost, to do so would be a form of religious discrimination unacceptable in today’s society.”

. . .He concluded that religion could be defined more accurately as a “spiritual or non-secular belief system” which “claims to explain mankind’s place in the universe and relationship with the infinite” and give people guidance on life.

“Such a belief system may or may not involve belief in a supreme being, but it does involve a belief that there is more to be understood about mankind’s nature and relationship to the universe than can be gained from the senses or from science,” he said.

This is a slippery definition, as are all definitions of religion. In essense, it argues that religions are simply “other ways of knowing”! (The “spiritual” and “relationship” with the infinite” part could simply constitute some kind of awe and wonder.) According to some opponents of scientism, that could include the arts and literature, which, they claim, are not subject to scientific analysis and can tell us about our relationship to the universe. And religions could also include pantheism, belief in paranormal phenomena like ESP and telekinesis, and so on, not to mention worship of Satan, which may soon get its own monument at Oklahoma’s state capitol, right next to the Ten Commandments.

Of course the British government is worried about this not because of the philosophical question of what constitutes a religion. No, they’re worried about it because Scientology can now share the tax breaks that other UK churches get:

Brandon Lewis, the local government minister, said: “I am very concerned about this ruling, and its implications for business rates.

“In the face of concerns raised by Conservatives in Opposition, Labour Ministers told Parliament during the passage of the Equalities Bill that Scientology would continue to fall outside the religious exemption for business rates.

“But we now discover Scientology may be eligible for rate relief and that the taxpayer will have to pick up the bill, all thanks to Harriet Harman and Labour’s flawed laws.”

“Hard-pressed taxpayers will wonder why Scientology premises should now be given tax cuts when local firms have to pay their fair share.”

That’s a good point, really, because Scientology, whatever else it may be, is a business.

The obvious solution, of course, is to eliminate tax breaks for all “churches”, but clearly that won’t happen.

I have mixed feelings because, after Islam and Catholicism, Scientology is the most odious of all cults, and its blatant financial bilking of adherents really puts it apart from most other religions, except, perhaps, for those that demand tithes. The Church is brimming with cash, and now it’ll get even richer. Perhaps this is just my prejudice,  for, really, how does Scientology differ in essence from Mormonism? They’re both man-made, believe ridiculous stuff, and have transcendent nature stories. And Mormons are asked to give 10% of their income to the Church (which is, of course, why that Church is also rich).  I’m not willing to consider a distinction between belief and disbelief in God for tax purposes, because that presumes that belief in a deity confers some special financial status on you. There is no justification for giving tax breaks to religions.

What’s good about this decision, though, is that now the British Government will have to get involved in the sociological/philosophical question of “what is a religion?”, and that will be an amusing mess. Although I don’t foresee all kinds of weird cults clamoring for tax breaks, I’m sure some will—and I hope that Satanists will demand their share.

If I had to define “religion,” I suppose I’d agree largely with Dan Dennett, who defined it in Breaking the Spell as “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.” That’s not a perfect definition—some Buddhists, for example, don’t accept a supernatural agent but do accept supernatural phenomena like reincarnation and the concept of karma, and Scientologists believe in “thetans”—but no definition will satisfy everyone. Religions are continuous with philosophies as well as paranomal beliefs, and any line drawn between “religion” and “nonreligion” will perforce be subjective. I suppose the British Court’s definition is as good as any. But it’s setting up the UK for a lot of future legal action. (Scientology is, by the way, considered a “secte” and not a religion in France.)

At any rate, get ready for some fun.  And kudos to the happy couple; may they have many audits to come!

The happy couple: Louisa Hodkin with her fiance Alessandro Calcioli.  Photo: PA

Weigh in below on your feelings about this decision.

103 thoughts on “British Supreme Court rules that Scientology is a religion

    1. That would be difficult in the UK, where the Church of England is part of the ceremonial apparatus of the state – it handles the coronations, weddings and funerals. I suppose we could take away the tax breaks for religions in general and then compensate the C of E separately, for services rendered.

  1. Makes me proud to be a Brit.

    Honestly, it feels sometimes like the US is slowly but surely moving in the right direction, but the UK is slowly slipping back to the dark ages. We have state-funded faith schools, an officially christian constitution, judges giving people lenient sentences due to their religious beliefs… the lunatics are taking over the asylum.

    1. Just wait until Liz II dies. Then his royal nuttiness the PoW gets to take over & he LOVES to be ecumenical & spiritual so wants to be a ‘defender of faiths’.

      The CoE has been pretty good over the years at being ‘a bit religious but not too much’, & the chance is that this will end sooner rather than later under a Carolingian state.

      If the court has to define religion in such a wooly way they have to accept things like the ‘Jedi’
      & neo-pagans, then accept their religious feasts etc.

      At present there are very few scientologists despite their high profile – a mere 2,418

        1. It’s not clear that Liz has the power to name a successor. The order of succession is set by Act of Parliament.

          She might pressure Charles to step aside, but he could have done that any time since William reached adulthood, and he shows no sign of it.

        1. Infidels will be boiled in lightly salted water with a tablespoon of olive oil until they stick to the wall.

      1. Fresh. It’s so easy!

        Dump 100 g of flour, at least half of which should be semolina, into a bowl. Make a well in the flour. Crack an egg into the well. Whisk the egg with a fork. The flour will gradually incorporate itself into the egg. When all the flour is incorporated, knead the dough. If necessary (and it’ll depend on the size of the egg) add a bit more flour or a few drops of water until the dough is firm and about as tacky as a post-it. The whole process should take less than five minutes.

        Tightly wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it sit for at least fifteen minutes. You can let it go overnight in the ‘fridge.

        Start a pot of water boiling.

        Run the dough through the pasta machine on its widest setting, several times, folding it in thirds each time. Then start closing down the rollers, putting the dough through each setting twice. When it’s however thin you want it, feed it through the cutters. You could dry the pasta at this point, but much better is to dump it in the boiling water with a pinch of salt and a splash of olive oil. Be sure to stir the pasta until you know it won’t stick together.

        When the water returns to a boil, cook just another couple minutes more at the most, drain, and do with as you will.

        For Fettuccine Alfredo, return the pasta to the pot (but not the burner) with a tablespoon or two of butter and a shake of nutmeg. Toss until the butter is melted. Splash in a generous amount of fresh cream — a quarter or a third of a cup or so. Return the pot to the burner over medium heat and keep tossing the pasta until the cream is absorbed by the pasta and what little remains is thickened. Remove from heat and fold in a generous amount of fresh-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano…at least a half a cup, maybe even a whole cup. There’s a quick transition between smooth and melted and stringy at this point; as soon as the cheese is melted, serve the pasta (with a sprinkling of a spoonful or so more Reggiano on top).



        1. My recipe is even easier.

          1) Run over to local food shop
          2) Pick up package of locally made fresh pasta

          I have similar steps for the pot of water and the sauce.

            1. Nah. I don’t actually run. And I’m generally there for other reasons anyway.

              Still, I like your boiling water step! 😉

        2. Perhaps we could have Ben do a regular WEIT guest cookery column?! We have not had any interesing food related items for a while…

        3. Does the pasta become the flesh of The Noodly One, and the sauce His Blood?

          Or do you need to say Hocus Pocus first?

          1. Pasta only takes the form of the Flying Spaghetti Monster when it is not supported by any surface. Thus, only in food fights does The Noodly One ever manifest. And, yes, blood has been known to be spilled when that happens.

            That’s a big part of the reason why I’m an Unicorinitarian, myself. Since all Holy Days to all religions are automatically subsumed into Unicornitarinism, we’re permitted — nay, required — to enjoy pasta with gusto in settings where Pastafarians partake, which is how I know these things.



        4. “Dump 100 g of flour, at least half of which should be semolina, into a bowl.

          Sacrilege! Heretic! How dare you do it in a bowl! Repent and do it right on the counter top, or face the burning cauldron of Arrabbiata sauce for all eternity!

  2. Hopefully when a few others join the bandwagon then it can be shown to be ridiculous.

    The only place you get ‘married’ is a registry office anywhere else is just flim-flam!

    Either that or just forget about ‘marriage’ entirely – what 2 people do is their business only – nothing to do with the state…

    I live in hope!

    1. A couple childhood friends of mine had their family sucked into this “religion”. Three siblings in that family… youngest committed suicide as a young boy, after learning how to raise earthworms inside little plexiglass pyramids.

      Middle and oldest siblings got married through the “church”. Middle sibling quickly decided the marriage was a bad idea, and went to get it annulled. In the process of doing so, it was discovered they never were legally married in the first place. Oldest sibling may or may not be “married”. Not sure if they ever checked their legal status.

      This was around the time the church in southern Cal was involved in recruiting youngsters for the purpose of breaking into various offices (legal, medical) and stealing records.

      Other than that, seems like a pretty harmless religion. Well, there’s the defrauding and the coercive nature of it… the sequestering of people — isolating them from their loved ones… psychological terror, etc. But besides that, it can really be a positive force in people’s lives. It’s not good when we’re too quick to judge the sincerely-held beliefs of others.

  3. I’m fine with this for the reasons that you already stated: it’ll be a spectacle of much hand-wringing watching people try to say exactly why *their* religion should be exempt but that others shouldn’t. And I think you’re right about the prospect of removing tax exemption for other religions – it almost certainly won’t happen but it’s something to hope for.

    And at the end of the day, this has allowed a couple to have their union take place somewhere that is meaningful to them & witnessed by people who are important to them (union in a legal sense, not anything which may traditionally follow..). Nothing wrong with that in my opinion – as you say, kudos to them.

    1. I’ve argued elsewhere that the UK should start disestablishment of the Church of England by withdrawing all recognition of religious marriage ceremonies, for all religions. They can still have their own ceremonies, but only Registry Office weddings (secular local council) should count for legal purposes.

      1. That’s how it is in Switzerland. The married couple receives from the town hall where they were married legally an extra certificate proving that they are indeed married, this certificate is to be presented to the church, temple, mosque or synagogue where they want a religious marriage. Without this certificate, the church, temple, mosque or synagogue is not allowed to marry couples religiously.

  4. “I have mixed feelings because, after Islam and Catholicism, Scientology is the most odious of all cults, . . .”

    Hmmm, tough call. In absolute terms I guess I’d have to agree that Catholicism is more odious than Scientology simply because of the disparity in size between the two. Call that the Quantity of Odiousness Formulation.

    But what about the Quality of Odiousness Formulation? I think Scientology comes out on top in this one. The regular church is powerfully odious and Sea Org is odious^2.

  5. Yes, well, Jedi is recognized as a religion there. Jerry is right, though, it doesn’t matter how you define religion if it doesn’t have an impact in laws or taxes.

    1. Sorry, but it isn’t (relevant bit: “A campaign on the internet claimed – wrongly – that Jedi … would receive official government recognition as a religion if enough people quoted it on their Census forms”).

      1. Darn. But I read it on the internet…. (Anyways, since Lucas announced it was Midichlorians that made Jedi, it’s not really a religion.)

        1. Huh? Lucas never did such a thing.

          On a related note, isn’t it a shame that he never did make any movies after the first three? Say, episodes 1 – 3? Sure would have been interesting to know the back-story.



  6. What’s good about this decision, though, is that now the British Government will have to get involved in the sociological/philosophical question of “what is a religion?”, and that will be an amusing mess.

    An amusing mess indeed. I’ve arranged for industrial-scale deliveries of popcorn and marshmallows to Club Schadenfreude. And I’m still debating whether or not to contribute to the Satanic Monument for the Oklahoma Capitol. It looks as if they may make their funding target without my help, so I can allow my natural disinclination to funding foreign lawyers to rule for the moment.

  7. Busted flat in San Jacinto, waiting for a ride, and I was feeling nearly as faded as Miscaviage’s face. L. Ron thumbed a Sea Org down, just before the mud slide, and he rode us past the gates of old Gold Base.

  8. Yes, yesterday was a sad day for rationality, with the UK Supreme Court’s decision on Scientology as a religion and the much more serious ruling in India making homosexuality a crime.
    The only silver lining I can detect is that the further down the scale of absurdity the secular recognition of religion goes the easier it should become to assess rationally the case for state-granted religious privilege. [I must disclose a personal interest here as I am writing a book dealing, inter alia, with the finances of organized religions.]

  9. There is a lovely flowchart doing the rounds, the idea of which is to help you “decide” which religion you should adhere to. One of the questions is “Are you rich and insane?”. If you answer “yes” then you should join the Scientologists.

        1. Amusing, but the hummus divide between Jews and muslims seems like a false note. I think alcohol would have been a better decision point.

  10. The (London) Times has a leader article on this. Among other things it says:
    ”Whether the Church of Scientology is a religion, as the Supreme Court has judged, is moreover a separate question from whether it should be entitled to charitable status. To be eligible, and thereby receive tax exemptions, would require it to have been established for public benefit. That is an issue not of religious liberty but of fact. The Church of Scientology does not work for the public good. France regards it as a pernicious cult guilty of organised fraud.”
    So at least they won’t get taxpayers’ money out of it.

    1. Your comment suggests to me a middle ground, where religions may still receive tax breaks but the government doesn’t have to decide what constitutes a religion.

      How about: charitable organizatinos receive tax breaks when >50% of the funds they take in are redistributed to recipients that are not themselves members or part of the organization.

      I’m okay with the scientologists or mormons getting a tax break if they’re giving most of their member-tithes to the poor. I’m likewise not okay with a secular charity that keeps most of the collected money for itself. Predicating tax breaks on what they do with the money seems like it might be a decent idea, and avoids the whole question of ‘is it a religion’ altogether.

      1. Here’s a better idea: apply the same rules as for wealthy individuals. Bill Gates doesn’t get to declare himself a tax-exempt charity no matter how much money he gives away. Instead, he sets up the tax-exempt Gates Foundation and gives his money to that (for which he’s entitled to a deduction on his personal taxes).

        Similarly, if churches (including Scientology) want tax-exempt status for doing good works, they should be required to set up charitable foundations separate from their main business of operating houses of worship. But the worship side of it should be treated like any other business for tax purposes.

        1. Excellent idea. And Since The Times quotes Jefferson “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion” by way of damning Scientology let us complete the quote: “and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

        2. That works too, and is already an option. I’m familiar with at least one mainstream church that does exactly that; it’s set up a separate corporate entity (or sub-entity) with separate books and tax status. It keeps the funding streams between church and charity entirely separate.

          However…the church still gets a tax break. I was thinking of my proposed rule replacing the current rules about tax breaks for churches. The two systems somewhat work at odds, because I doubt a church would split off and run a separate charity if doing so resulted in them losing their tax breaks for the upkeep of their building etc… Come to think of it, my rule would penalize churches that currently keep their books separate, which is not a good thing. Okay, maybe back to the drawing board….

    2. The Times lays into Scientology with gusto to make the most militant of atheists blush – or laugh at in hilarity. Castigating believers for their lack of critical thinking is commendable, but coming from the most Catholic of newspapers it is also rich satire. Scornful of one set of ludicrous beliefs; devout acceptance of another.

    3. Any place of religious worship, so long as it is open to a section of the population, can register as such and as a result gets removed from the register of taxable places, so they will be 100% business rates (non-domestic rates) free. They can claim that 100% of their premises are for religious worship, with supporting offices, and then the entire premises and grounds becomes property-tax free. Their large place at 146 Queen Victoria Street, in the City of London, would then not be liable for the 375K GBP per year rates. They could claim the same for their headquarters and other buildings they have. So they get this 100% tax break just for being a place of religious worship. If they were a charity then they would only get an 80% tax break. Bottom line is, they won’t care whether they are an official charity or not – they get more tax breaks just from the place of religious worship angle. And the Supreme Court in the UK just handed that to them on a platter.

  11. It would be nice to seize this opportunity and overwhelm the lawmakers with a list of other religions wanting tax breaks like Pastafarians, Satanists and so forth. Perhaps that will force them to just eliminate tax breaks for all churches.

    Unlikely though – but it would be fun trying.

    1. This is an excellent idea and I would hope that a number of our Pastafarian brethren pick up the gauntlet and demand the right to operate a tax free Pastafarian organisation along with the right to hold Pastafarian weddings here in the UK. Nothing exposes the absurdity of religious privilege more than having an organisation which adheres to totally absurd ideas equated in law exactly to ones own organisation.

      1. How about operating a tax-free government subsidized pasta restaurant as place-of-worship ? Those who knows their pastalogy get free plate ? Cardinal ben-goren as the faith-enforcer officer of the religion?

        (running pasta cooking school as ‘seminary’ ?)


    2. Theoretically, you could have a building or grounds whose main purpose is for the training of Jedi knights in the use of the light sabre and they too could register as a place of religious worship and get 100% property tax exemption.

  12. Whenever I hear people comparing Scientology with the LDS(really,it should be “LSD”) I think of the following saying:

    “Scientology, making Mormons look normal since 1952.”

  13. Do you have to get married in a place of religious worship in Britain? I’ve heard of people getting married on wine farms or town halls or all sorts of places here, none of which are places of religious worship.

    1. No. You can either get married in premises that have been approved by the local registrar, or at premises that have been registered as “a place of meeting for religious worship”. One of the oddities of the system is that if a venue has been approved (for civil ceremonies) then religious services can’t take place there. So the Supreme Court took account of the fact that, if Scientologist chapels were not places of religious worship then Scientologists wouldn’t be able to have their own kind of wedding ceremonies anywhere, which amounted to an additional level of discrimination.

      They did seem to shy away from coming up with a universal definition of religion, though, rather deciding whether Scientologists met the definition for the purposes of marriage venue rules. So the arguments don’t necessarily carry across into other contexts. In doing so they looked at, among other things, American decisions about the separation of state and religion. Full judgment here:

    2. I believe the Church of England has a legal duty to marry members if there is no legal impediment to doing so. However, as long as there is a legally sanctioned official – not necessarily a CoE official – to witness and record the event, I think couples can get married wherever they like. Perversely, the recent legislation to allow gay marriage denies the CoE (and the Church in Wales) alone amongst religious communities the right to a same-sex marriage within their own Church. Gay CoE members are still denied the same legal rights as their heterosexual counterparts in England and Wales.

      1. Ha! Don’t say that to my mom who wasn’t allowed to marry my father because she was divorced. They had to go to Unitarians to get married. To this day, she bears a grudge against the Anglican Church.

        1. I forgot about the D word. This would presumably involve cannon law – as with same-sex marriage. The secular state is failing to take on religious prejudice. The moral is for CoE members to see their Church for what it is – a source of intolerance and injustice based on bigotry, defended by biblical authority.

            1. I would be surprised if that were so. After all, the CoE (Anglican Church) was created by Henry VIII when he broke with the Vatican who had refused to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, so that he could marry Ann Boleyn. He then divorced Catherine of Aragon and wed Ann Boleyn. He divorced Anne of Cleves, his fourth wife, and married Kathryn Howard.

              Now, until recently, British Royals were not allowed to marry divorcees or Catholics, but that changed with the current generations (with regard to divorcees). With regard to marrying a Catholic, British Royals can in fact do so, but the moment they marry a Catholic they cease to be in the line of succession.

  14. btw, the President of the Supremes didn’t give the lead judgment, he just said “I agree with him” afterwards.

  15. My position, on both straight marraige and gay marriage, is that the government, state and federal, should be out of the marriage business. They should recognize civil unions and all the legal entailments that go along with them. “Marriage” should be in the domain of religion.

    1. Screw that. I’ve had a marriage going on for thirty some years now and have no interest in getting religion involved.

  16. “I would describe religion in summary 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. By spiritual or non-secular I mean a belief system which goes beyond that which can be perceived by the senses or ascertained by the application of science. I prefer not to use the word “supernatural” to express this element, because it is a loaded word which can carry a variety of connotations. Such a belief system may or may not involve belief in a supreme being, but it does involve a belief that there is more to be understood about mankind’s nature and relationship to the universe than can be gained from the senses or from science.”

    I think the Supreme Court does a fairly good, if invidious, job of considering what can be considered a religion. I agree that consideration of the word “supernatural” only muddies the water rather than being a defining property. Art and literature in general do not try to *explain* mankind’s place in the universe and relationship with the infinite. Nor do they generally intend to spell out a set of beliefs in didactic fashion to a self-identified group of adherents. Art and literature can be used to promote specific religious beliefs but are not inherently of a religionist nature. For me they express what and how it is to be human, which can include a “religious/spiritual” component. This is very different from “Religion”. Art and literature qua “spirit” do not require a *belief system* relating to a realm beyond the senses and science. Spirit can be something vague, inchoate, experienced perhaps as pointing beyond itself; or it may be simply experienced as self expression pure and simple.

    The court clearly differentiates religion from science.That is good. It doesn’t overextend its remit by saying that religion constitutes knowledge. It says that religion has as *a belief* that mankind’s relationship to the world involves more than science and the senses. In this respect art and literature could match the bill as religion, but not when considered as a non-secular belief system. Art, literature and music are not non-secular belief systems! They are very secular expressions of what it means to be human. Whatever non-secular message they may or may not intend to express.

    1. I still think all marriages should be civil events and then if other people want something special for their own purposes let them go do their thing,whatever that might be.

  17. “They’re both man-made, believe ridiculous stuff, and have transcendent nature stories.”

    that isn’t just Mormons or Scientology, that’s almost every religion

  18. As a UK taxpayer, I do not want to pay for this or any other religion on any level.
    I hope this does open up a debate but I doubt it. I’d like to see Paxo get hold of it on Newsnight.
    The more people think about this, comment above and on other blogs, the more ridiculous it gets.
    Way down the line, people will be incredulous as to how religion survived for thousands of years. Hopefully this will be another nail in its coffin.

  19. Wow.

    Scientology: wow. (In the bad sense.)

    Jerry: wow. (In the good sense.) “That’s not a perfect definition—some Buddhists, for example, don’t accept a supernatural agent but do accept supernatural phenomena like reincarnation and the concept of karma, and Scientologists believe in “thetans”—but no definition will satisfy everyone. Religions are continuous with philosophies as well as paranomal beliefs, and any line drawn between “religion” and “nonreligion” will perforce be subjective.”


  20. I’m just angry that scientologists can get married legally and humanists can’t (in England, at least). Humanism as a philosophy has been around a lot longer. The Judge’s ruling would seem to exclude any kind of secular philosophy from having a legally binding ceremony for it’s members. If that’s not discrimination, what is?

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