The Church of Scientology in London just won an appeal over the recognition of its chapel as a place of “public religious worship”.
The case was not about being recognized as a genuine religion, as this was already affirmed by the supreme court in 2013 (and the new appeal decision rightfully start by these very words: “1. Scientology is a religion.”) in R. (Hodkin) v Registrar General. Rather, the case was about whether was the chapel to be considered as a public worship space, per the existing case law.
The Church of Scientology in London had stated that their chapel and ancillary premises were to be tax exempt as place of public religious worship (from non-domestic rating”, a tax on properties not used for living accommodation), and the HM Revenue & Customs disagreed. A first instance judge agreed with HM Revenue & Customs, and the case was appealed by the Church before the Upper Tribunal (Lands Chamber) in London.
The appeal judges heard evidence and experts from both parts and concluded that the chapel was a place of “public religious worship” and that it and most of the parts of the Church building were indeed to be exempted, overturning the previous ruling.
In their long judgment in 146 points, dated 5 January 2023, they described the Church building as an “imposing Portland stone façade [which] features balconies and flagpoles which would not look out of place in the Vatican.” They stated that estimates of the Church’s total UK membership vary widely, writing that “media estimates have ranged from 15,000 adherents to as many as 118,000”, but that Sunday services were only attended by small congregations, other Scientology services being more at the core of Scientology religious practice (“In Scientology, greater emphasis is placed on other forms of observance.”).
Nevertheless, the judges made clear that the numbers were not the stake, the only issue being “if all ‘properly disposed persons’ are eligible to enter and participate in the acts of worship being conducted there.”
And here is their conclusion:
“Taking the evidence as a whole, we are entirely satisfied that at the material time in 2013 the chapel at the London Church was a place of public religious worship, and that it has continued to be so. The building itself indicates by its permanent signage and branding that it is a place where strangers are welcome, including to attend services. The Church actively invites non-Scientologists who have had no previous significant contact with the religion to participate in its services as a way of introducing them to its message and encouraging them to discover more. It uses conventional advertising on its premises, which are open to visitors every day, as well as word of mouth, email invitations, and its website. Its ambition is not limited to drawing its existing members closer, or attracting their immediate friends and family, and plainly extends to all comers.”
Therefore, the tribunal granted the Church with the exemption from non-domestic rating and ruled that the Scientology chapel was a place of public religious worship.