Scientologists seek religious status under European Act

The Telegraph/July 30, 2000
By Jo Knowsley

The church of Scientology, described by a judge as "corrupt, sinister and dangerous", plans to use guidelines on religion and belief in the European Human Rights Convention to gain recognition in Britain and conduct official weddings.

It is allowed to perform official marriages in South Africa and is recognised as a religion in Sweden. Now its leaders in Britain claim it is "just a matter of time" before it receives similar recognition here.

Liberty, the civil rights group, also says that the church has "a viable case" under the Human Rights Act, which comes into force on October 2.

Mona Arshi, a legal officer at Liberty, said: "We contemplate that there will be a number of challenges from religious groups under articles 9, 12 and 14 in the Human Rights Act. I would say that they [Scientologists] have a viable case." The Scientologists are pinning their hopes on anti-discriminatory articles in the Act which, they say, support their move.

They are also encouraged by a Home Office project to research religious discrimination, at the University of Derby. The interim report, which considers the effects of the Human Rights Act on religion, will be completed in September. Critics of the church, however, say that it would be "frightening" if the organisation were to benefit from an extension of human rights.

Ian Haworth of the Cult Information Centre, which counsels people who have had difficulty leaving cults or sects, said: "We would be very concerned if an organisation such as Scientology, described by Justice Latey in 1984 as 'corrupt, sinister and dangerous' should be given special consideration because of human rights issues.

"A lot of the concerns that have been expressed about groups like this are over the perceived removal of certain human rights for group members. Human rights organisations need to be careful that they are not giving rights to organisations which might then deny those rights to their members."

Last year, the church's application for charitable status for the purpose of "the advancement of religion" was rejected by the English Charity Commission, which ruled that it was not of "public benefit". But Graeme Wilson, the public affairs director of the Church of Scientology, said recognition was now coming "from across the globe".

He said: "The Government in the UK has committed itself to a policy of non-discrimination against religion and human rights. We believe that the Human Rights Act will make it much more difficult to discriminate against religion. We are a religion. It is a question of getting official recognition." It was then "a matter of course", he said, to win the right to perform marriages.

In England and Wales, members of religions outside the Church of England must be wed in buildings that have been registered for worship and marriage.

The Jewish religion and Society of Friends, however, do not have to register their buildings. Groups such as the Church of Scientology are not recognised as religions and must undergo a civil ceremony before a wedding at their church.

Mr Wilson called the Charity Commission's interpretation of religion, based on Lord Denning's definition of "reverence or veneration of God as a supreme being", as "narrow" and "antiquated". He said: "We would hope that this narrow definition would be influenced by the Human Rights Act. We are now recognised as a religion in Sweden. We hope that it will go along the same lines here."

Scientology first appeared in Britain in the early Fifties and the sect has since erected eight churches. Its beliefs are based on the writings of L Ron Hubbard, who suggests that humans are reincarnated and that within each person there is a spirit trying to guide them. Attitudes towards the church differ widely within Europe.

In France the government recently described Scientology as a dangerous organisation that "threatens public order" and "human dignity" and called for its dissolution. Last year a leader was jailed for fraud. In Germany, which regards Scientology as a business, it is forbidden for politicians or civil servants to be members of the church. This has been deemed unconstitutional by the European Court of Human Rights.

In the US, where Scientology is accepted as a religion, high-profile members include Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Lisa-Marie Presley and John Travolta, who have donated millions of dollars. Travolta was accused of promoting it in his film Battlefield Earth.

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