THE Church of Scientology was yesterday barred from charitable status after the Charity Commission ruled that it failed to promote the "moral and spiritual welfare" of the community.
The commission rejected the church's application to become a registered charity on the grounds that it did not confer a "public benefit" and it had not been established "for the advancement of religion".
The commissioners came to their decision after an examination lasting more than three years, and insisted they had taken a "broad and flexible view of the law".
The church, which has more than 100,000 members in Britain and counts celebrities such as John Travolta, Tom Cruise and his wife Nicole Kidman among its devotees, was furious at the decision and vowed to go to court to challenge the ruling.
The decision is the latest in a series of blows to the church in Europe. Last month, a former official was jailed for six months after a French court found him guilty of defrauding disciples with bogus and expensive treatments for stress. The conviction was the third of its kind involving Scientologists in France.
In deciding whether the church could become a charity, the commissioners ruled that it was not of public benefit because its core activities - "auditing" and "training" - were essentially private.
The commissioners also decided that Scientology was not an organisation for the advancement of religion because, while accepting that Scientologists believe in a supreme being, adherents do not worship this being.
Scientologists believe their bodies are vessels for immortal beings called "thetans" and that pain is recorded in the mind as "engrams", which can be measured by an electropsychometer.
The church, which has eight million members worldwide, charges between £30 and £15,000 for its courses to help adherents to achieve an "engram-free" state called "clear".
Scientology already enjoys tax-exempt status in America, where it was founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard three years after his book, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, became a bestseller in 1950. Sweden and Venezuela are among the countries that have recently recognised it as a religion, entitled to tax benefits.
The church described the British ruling as "biased and discriminatory", and said it was "flying in the face of the European Convention on Human Rights".
Graeme Wilson, public affairs director, said: "The decision is the equivalent of a medieval Pope saying that the earth is flat and that the sun revolves around it."
But John Stoker, Chief Charity Commissioner for England and Wales, defended the decision, saying: "We would accept that Scientologists acknowledge a supreme being, but it comes back to auditing and training, which are the practices they regard as worship.
"There are some features of worship which these practices do not reflect, in particular, reverence.
"They can certainly go to the courts to appeal," Mr Stoker said. "But we did spend an awful lot of time and effort on this and we think this decision we have reached is the correct one in law.
"It has taken considerably longer than the average case. There are a lot of issues of importance and we went through them extremely thoroughly."