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Public law and Regulation

Case reports and guidance on public law and professional regulation issues

06 FEB 2014

R (on the application of Hodkin and another) (Appellants) v Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages (Respondent) [2013] UKSC 77; (2014) PLLR 011

Places of Worship Registration Act 1855 - meaning of "religious worship" - religion - Church of Scientology - buildings for the solemnisation of marriages - role of Registrar General

A church where religious services of the Church of Scientology are held.

11 December 2013

Supreme Court

Lords Neuberger (President of the Supreme Court), Clarke, Wilson, Reed and Toulson

(1)        The appellants wished to be married in a church which belongs to the Church of Scientology. The question for the Court was whether the decision in R v Registrar General Ex p Segerdal, which held that a different church in the Church of Scientology was not a ‘place for religious worship' within the meaning of section 2 of the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855 should be upheld.

(2)        Ouseley J, dismissed an application for judicial review of the refusal of the respondent to register the church as a place of religious worship. However, he certified as a point of law of general public importance how section 2 of the 1855 Act should apply to the Church of Scientology and other similar religions. Leave to appeal directly to the Supreme Court was granted.

(3)        Lord Toulson (with whom the rest of the Court agreed) held: (1) The judge was correct to begin by considering whether Scientology was a religion. Although ‘religious worship' in section 2 of the 1855 Act is a composite expression, the question whether the services performed in a chapel are religious worship is inevitably conditioned by whether Scientology is to be regarded as a religion. (2) The expression ‘place of meeting for religious worship' has to be interpreted in accordance with contemporary understanding of religion and not by reference to the culture of 1855. (3) The judge in the court below was correct to conclude that Scientology is a religion; the term religion should not be confined to religions which involve belief in a supreme being. (4) For the purposes of the 1855 Act, religion can be described 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. Such a belief system may or may not involve belief in a supreme being. On this approach Scientology is a religion for the purpose of section 2 of the 1855 Act. (5) The interpretation of religious worship in Segerdal is unduly narrow; the proper interpretation includes religious services, whether or not they involve the adoration of a deity. The religious services of the Scientologists fall within this definition. (6) The decision in Segerdal should be overruled, and the chapel in question registered as a place of religious worship.

(4)        Lord Wilson (with whom Lord Neuberger, Lord Clarke and Lord Reed agreed) in a separate judgment disagreed with Lord Toulson's view that the function of the Registrar General in recording a place certified to him under the 1855 Act was purely ministerial, in other words that he had no right to decline to record a place on the ground that in his opinion it was not a place of meeting for religious worship. The Registrar General is not subject to a presumption that a place certified to her is one of religious worship unless she receives information to the contrary. She has the right to investigate whether a place is one of religious worship, and whether she chooses to investigate an assertion that a place certified to her is one of religious worship is a matter for her discretion. A number of factors support this interpretation: (1) Other sections of the 1855 Act confer a decision-making function on the Registrar General in relation to the suggested cessation of use of a certified place for religious worship, and for the re-certification of a place that continues to be used for religious worship. It would be paradoxical for the Registrar General to have a decision-making function in relation to the use of a place of religious worship following the recording of a certificate but not beforehand. (2) The privileges and exemptions granted to places certified as ones of religious worship mean that only those that are indeed places of religious worship should be registered as such. (3) Although the Registrar General may not have any particular expertise in making this determination, there have been no suggestions as to which other person or body would be both better qualified to undertake this task and as generally acceptable as the Registrar General.

Appeal allowed

Key paragraphs

Judgment of Lord Toulson JSC

[1] - [2] - Introduction

[3] - [5] - The proceedings

[6] - [14] - The legislation

[15] - [22] - Evidence

[23] - [30] - Segerdal

[31] - [64] - Discussion

[65] - Conclusion

[66] - [84] - Separate judgement of Lord Wilson JSC.

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