By Ilias Trispiotis
In R (on the application of Hodkin) v Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages  EWHC 3635 the High Court acknowledged that a broader definition of worship should be part of the future judicial agenda. That could be a positive step, especially vis-à-vis non-theistic religions.
The case arose when a couple decided to get married at the London Church of Scientology Chapel. The chapel is not registered under Section 2 of the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855 (‘1855 Act’) as a place of meeting for religious worship, which entails that it may not be registered under Section 26 of the Marriage Act 1949 for solemnisation of marriages. The claimants applied for judicial review of the decision of the Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages refusing to register the chapel under the 1855 Act. The Registrar relied on R v Registrar General ex parte Segerdal  2 QB 697 (‘Segerdal’) where the Court of Appeal had refused to register another Scientologist chapel. In juxtaposition, the claimants stressed that Scientology had evolved since 1970s, and they argued that the current multi-faith society commanded a more expansive approach on the definition of places for religious worship in order to equally accommodate non-theistic religions.
The High Court followed the Segerdal approach, according to which a place for religious worship covers places for non-theistic religious worship. Thus, whether Scientology does qualify as a religion under the 1855 Act is not decisive. Rather, the crucial factor is whether Scientologists worship, or they worship but outside the scope of a religion. According to Segerdal, worship requires an object of veneration, whether Being, principle, or law. Belief or aspiration to achieve an end, such as Scientology’s focus on the spirit of man, is not enough. Hence, the Scientology chapel should not be registered because it is not a place of meeting for religious worship. In the absence of evidence establishing that Scientologist worship has significantly changed since the 1970s, the High Court found Segerdal still binding.
Nonetheless, the judgment acknowledged that the Court of Appeal might need to reconsider its approach to religious worship in the future. The High Court gave two main reasons for that. First, it is difficult to separate worship from religion. The issue should be treated as a whole since the reasons why a service does not constitute worship are interlaced with the reasons why a belief system is not a religion. Second, the Segerdal approach seems inadequate with regard to non-theistic beliefs. For it involves a definition of worship which revolves around ceremonies or formal acts revering a supernatural or divine power or principle. That might place an inappropriate limitation on the scope of religion in modern legislation.
Notably the European Court of Human Rights (‘ECtHR’) has held in Kimlya v Russia (App. No.: 78636/01) that there is no consensus in Europe on whether Scientology is a religion. Nevertheless, it is significant that both the ECtHR and the UN Human Rights Committee – paragraph 4 of the UN General Comment 22 is indicative – have consistently favored a generous interpretation of worship not confined to institutional forms of religious manifestation or traditional beliefs.
Ilias Trispiotis is a PhD candidate at University College, London, and a Visiting Researcher at Harvard Law School