How Scientology Changed the Legal Definition of Religion

A Scientology wedding in Rome

A chapter in a new book edited by Eileen Barker and James Richardson, emphasizes the church’s crucial role in the evolution of international case law.

by Alessandro Amicarelli — In a previous article, I mentioned the exceptional importance of the new book Reactions to the Law by Minority Religions (London and New York: Routledge, 2021), edited by Eileen Barker and James T. Richardson, well-known as two of the most senior scholars of new religious movements internationally.

In this article, I would like to focus on another crucial theme discussed in that book, the legal notion of religion, and the role the Church of Scientology had in promoting case law evolution in this field in several countries.

In the 1990s, the European Union supported a project involving scholars from various countries aimed at finding a possible shared definition of religion. One of the scholars involved was Bitter Winter’s editor-in-chief, Massimo Introvigne, and the project generated a bulky volume, The Pragmatics of Defining Religion (Leiden: Brill, 1999). While the book was hailed as a landmark study of the subject, the experts concluded that in the European Union there was no shared academic or legal definition of religion. The notion was socially constructed and politically negotiated, with different results in different countries.

Other scholars, including the Dutch historian Wouter Hanegraaff, lamented that many definitions of religion are still based on an old model created in the 19th century that used as its paradigm Christianity, Protestantism in the English- and German-speaking world, and Catholicism in France. Confronted with this situation, scholars such as Timothy Fitzgerald suggested that “religion” as a general category should be abandoned altogether. But these proposals never persuaded academics, who need to define the field of religious studies, nor lawyers, as many domestic and international legal provisions refer to religion and need to be interpreted.

As Eric Roux shows in his chapter in Reactions to the Law by Minority Religions, it was at this stage that Scientology entered the legal arena, and managed to change the rules of the game through an impressive string of court victories. Those hostile to the church founded by L. Ron Hubbard insisted that Scientology is not a religion. They used two main arguments to support this theory, which had the practical aim to deny to Scientology the tax and other benefits associated with being recognized as a religion.

First, they claimed that Scientology cannot be a religion because it is a “business” that charges quid pro quo fees for its services. As Roux persuasively shows, this argument was liquidated in several landmark court decisions, none perhaps more comprehensive in its examination of the subject than the one rendered by the Italian Supreme Court of Cassation in the 1997 case Bandera and others. In fact, the Italian judges stated, quid pro quo payments also exist in several mainline religions, all religions solicit donations from their parishioners, and the systems to collect these donations do not deny, or confer, the status of religions to groups operating in several different ways.

Second, they confront the reality of the Church of Scientology, as they understand it, with definitions of religion that include a “belief in God” and “rituals,” believe they had not found these in Scientology, and conclude it is not a religion. This is the main legal problem discussed by Roux, and it does not concern Scientology only. Scholars can argue that Scientology does believe in an Ultimate Reality, and that it has its own “rituals” (as French scholar Régis Dericquebourg has persuasively demonstrated), but if the paradigm remains firmly grounded in the concept of God of Christianity and in the Catholic Mass or Protestant Sunday service, very few non-Christian religions would pass the test. Historically, what is still called in Continental Europe “droit ecclésiastique” (“ecclesiastical law,” in a literal English translation) was modeled on Christianity. Jews were somewhat accommodated. Including Islam was already more difficult, as recent debates on the new French law on “separatism” have confirmed. Buddhism was out, and the Buddhist Union has signed a concordat in Italy at the price of adopting a Christianized terminology mentioning “congregations” and “ministers.”

Scientology, as we all know, has powerful enemies, who operated to keep it out of the sphere of recognized religion. They ultimately failed. Roux shows that even in countries with a strong political opposition to the church, including France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, and Australia, courts have recognized that Scientology is a religion, not to mention the landmark decision of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service in 1993. Russia continues to deny recognition to Scientology, but it has been censored three times by the European Court of Human Rights.

Scientology’s enemies also failed at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), where a large coalition of religionists and NGOs torpedoed in 2014 an anti-cult resolution by French MP Rudy Salles. PACE warned, on the contrary, against discriminations distinguishing between traditional and new religions, a story Roux vividly tells as he was personally involved in it, as was the author of this article.

Roux’s study offers two conclusions. First, that Scientology is undoubtedly a religion, as courts of law all over the world have recognized, with the exception of Russia but including in countries where there had been considerable media and political opposition to Scientology. Second, that like the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, Scientologists have not fought for themselves only. Their efforts to overcome outdated definitions of religion based on the Christian paradigm only have opened the way to the legal recognition of many other non-Christian religions. These outdated definitions, however, are still around, and the battle continues.

This article is also published on Bitter Winter