The Scientology Marriage Ruling is a Victory for Religious Freedom

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With the approval of Britain's Supreme Court you can now be married in England by the Church of Scientology, the cult founded by the science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. What next, Jedi or Doctor Who-themed marriages? Well, actually, you can already have a Jedi-themed marriage, so long as you don't claim it is religious. That's because of a rather bizarre divide in British law that says you can have a secular marriage (themed however you like) so long as there is no religious content; or you can have a religious marriage, for which you need to go to a place of religious worship on the approved list.


Prior to 1837 there was only the religious option, with a choice of Church of England, Quaker or Jewish (Catholics and the non-religious had to pick one). When the rules were extended to allow a secular alternative the churches flexed their muscles and insisted on the "no religious content" rule in order to preserve their monopoly over religious matters. Thus, when the new-fangled cult of Scientology came along, the High Court judges turned up their noses and said, no, it couldn't get its churches onto the approved list because there was insufficient "reverence for God or a deity" going on in them.

That was 1970. The difference between a "cult" and a "religion" is that the latter have been around longer, and we're now in 2014. Thus the Court has ruled (after some rather tortured theological analysis) that Scientology is now a religion and can indeed perform marriages.

Should secularists welcome this? Yes indeed. It is no part of a state's business to get involved in theology or to pronounce on what is or is not a religion. Nor should the state say that you can't have religious content in your wedding unless you go to one of the approved religions. It should set some minimum standards for wedding locations and celebrants and leave it at that. We've accepted that the Established Church no longer has a veto on gay marriage, so why should it have a veto on your wish to include a hymn in your otherwise-secular wedding?

"As to religion, I hold it to be the indispensable duty of every government, to protect all conscientious professors thereof, and I know of no other business which government hath to do therewith", wrote Thomas Paine back in 1776. One business that the state should certainly stay out of is certifying approved religions and declaiming on religious doctrine. The only reasons for it doing either are to penalise someone for being religious, or to grant them extra rights and privileges. No-one today would argue for the former, but too many think that the latter is a right, and that being religious entitles you to extra freedoms. That blatantly contradicts the fundamental secular principle of equality under the law. "Religious freedom" doesn't grant you extra rights, it just means you can't lose freedoms owing to someone else's dislike of your religious views.

Thus the Scientology ruling is in essence a victory for religious freedom, the principle that your religion cannot be judged as inferior by the High Court judges of an Established Church who complain that you don't venerate the deity sufficiently. Of course Scientology is still a nasty and dangerous cult, nothing in this ruling changes that, but being benign and peaceful has never been a qualification for being a religion.

Government minister Brandon Lewis was not impressed, saying that he was "very concerned about this ruling, and its implications for business rates", and that "hard-pressed taxpayers will wonder why Scientology premises should now be given tax cuts when local firms have to pay their fair share".

Some of us, Mr Lewis, feel the same way about the other religions. The answer is obvious, isn't it? Being religious should not get you tax breaks! A church can fairly ask for tax exemption on any actual charitable activity that helps those outside the church, but otherwise it should be treated as any other life-style choice. Haven't we got beyond the presumption that religions are an automatic public good? Scientology most certainly is not. If we're all in society together as equals, shouldn't the same taxes apply to all?

If there were no tax implications and no automatic privileges for the religious then there would be no reason for the state to opine on religious matters. Let's hope that the labelling of Scientology as a religion helps to discredit the idea of religious privilege, but attitudes across the world are currently inconsistent. Scientology gets tax breaks in Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden and the United States, but not in Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France or Germany. The way forward is not to aim for better consistency about which religions qualify, but to realise that religious status should be irrelevant and make no difference.

In another recent High Court case the judges corrected an earlier ruling, which had held that resting on the Sabbath was not a requirement for a Christian — sorry, that is for the individual Christian to decide — but then rightly concluded that it didn't matter, and that the religious preferences of the plaintiff were secondary to the need of the employer to have work done on a Sunday. A desire to take Sunday off for religious reasons should count for no more — and no less — than a desire to take Sunday off to watch your kids play football. Once the principle of religious freedom and equality is both accepted and properly understood there will be no more need for courts to make rulings on religious matters. They should leave that to the priests and theologians.

Written By: Coel Hellier
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27 COMMENTS

    • In reply to #1 by A3Kr0n:

      It’s nobody’s business who I want to marry, who I want to be married by, or if I don’t want to be married at all.

      Well actually the state is involved in ensuring that you receive certain rights as a spouse. It is therefore necessary for the state to know who is and isn’t married.

  1. Very well said. There’s another interesting implication under UK law though: why should Scientolology not now queue up behind the CofE, Catholics, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs to hold out its hand for state funds to cover 99% of the costs of running a state faith school?

    The only (non-discriminatory and therefore legal) way out of this bind, in Coel Hellier’s own terms, is to stop giving public funds to any religion to run schools.

  2. The answer is for everyone to form or join a “religious” organization. By the time no one is paying taxes, they will be forced to rethink it. In the US, the Church of the FSM is recognized, and able to perform weddings. The next step is to become tax exempt. The great thing about this “church”, is that you can be an atheist and still join.

    • Indeed, religion is a hobby and should be treated as such. Other hobbies don’e get special privileges so why should religion.

      As for marriage, the marriage should be secular and civil. Any religious element should be outside of that.

      In reply to #7 by Richard01:

      Religious organisations could simply be redefined as ‘clubs’? In this context the definition of ‘club’ is “an association dedicated to a particular interest or activity”

  3. “The answer is obvious, isn’t it? Being religious should not get you tax breaks! “

    Hear, hear!

    End this charade—> now. Totally discriminatory & biased. Guarantee some current would die out- & others would simply not be looked at. They’re all frauds & we all know it.

  4. I may be wrong on this, but I understood that actually you can only get married through a Government Registry Office or through a Church of England service. Other religions or non-religions can perform “marriage” ceremonies, but it then has to be ratified by the state – presumably again the local Registry Office. I imagine you get it all done at the same time, but still it’s an interesting distinction … if true.

    Anyone know for sure?

    • In reply to #9 by GPWC:

      I may be wrong on this, but I understood that actually you can only get married through a Government Registry Office or through a Church of England service. Other religions or non-religions can perform “marriage” ceremonies, but it then has to be ratified by the state – presumably again the local Registry Office. I imagine you get it all done at the same time, but still it’s an interesting distinction … if true.

      Anyone know for sure?

      I think that is essentially correct. Someone has to be a registrar who can sign the legal (as distinct from religious) paperwork. Have a look here.

      The Church of England and the Church in Wales are allowed to register a marriage at the same time as performing the religious ceremony.

      Ministers and priests of all other religions can be authorised to register marriages and must have a certificate or licence to do so from the local Superintendent Registrar. For Jewish and Quaker marriages, the authorisation is automatic. For all other religions, if the official performing the ceremony is not authorised, either a Registrar must attend the religious ceremony or the partners will need to have separate religious and civic ceremonies.

      So you are right it can all be done at the same time. These days there is also a very long list of places (locally approved premises) in the UK you can get married outside of a religious building and a registry office.

      This vary between the various parts of the United Kingdom.

      Michael

  5. A rather silly consequence of religious relics subsisting in the legal system, in this case the English law. It seems to me that the origin of marriage lies in the societal need to recognise offspring-producing pairs in the population, e.g. to be able to apportion responsibility for the care of such offspring. Later of course it also became a basis for economic activity and today in most civlised countries can even be applied to humans of the same sex, thus cutting the socially important production of offspring out of the picture. Since marriage carries legal undertakings, it is in the interest of the state that it should be constituted in a legally binding manner, thus e.g. the requirement for witnesses and a reliable official to record the event. That now the rather offensive sect calling itself Scientology should be given such status as reliable officiant seems to me somewhat whimsical but not of great consequence.

    Where I live (Finland) marriages can be officiated by the two state churches (Lutheran and Orthodox) and by a magistrate. I myself was married in Zug, Switzerland, where the magistrate is the only legally competent officiator, people who want a religious marriage can do that at their discretion. This I think is the only acceptable arrangement in today’s world (at least in civilised countries).

  6. My own state governor tried the route of removing tax exemption for church property taxes last year (and he is a Republican, no less). It was shouted down from the rooftops that putting property taxes on churches was somehow a violation of religious freedom (you know, making a church pay for its share of police, fire, ambulance, roads and such).

    In my own town, (village really), there is one church. It owns one-eighth of all the property in town, all tax exempt. The net effect is to raise the taxes on everyone else, whether they are members of that church or not (such as my wife and me) to support it.

    • In reply to #12 by Curious James:

      My own state governor tried the route of removing tax exemption for church property taxes last year (and he is a Republican, no less). It was shouted down from the rooftops that putting property taxes on churches was somehow a violation of religious freedom (you know, making a church pay for its sha…

      What state was this and who is the Republican who proposed it? I haven’t heard of this it sounds interesting.

  7. A bloody good article. As any rational individual knows, the beliefs of all religions and cults (and homeopathists, chiropractors, witch doctors and faith healers) are all exactly as bat shit crazy as each other.

    The matter of tax relief is probably of greater importance. Living in Ireland, as I do, the obscene amounts of untaxed money raked in by the Catholic church from the terminally gullible make me sick, especially in the midst of a recession which, in Ireland, was helped on by so many bankers and politicians who pray on a Sunday and spend the next 6 days flouting every ethic that their religion is supposed to teach.

    • In reply to #14 by JonPierson001:

      A bloody good article. As any rational individual knows, the beliefs of all religions and cults (and homeopathists, chiropractors, witch doctors and faith healers) are all exactly as bat shit crazy as each other.

      The matter of tax relief is probably of greater importance. Living in Ireland, as I do…
      I agree entirely with your statements, but would leave out th Chiropractors, who occasionally help folks!

  8. “The difference between a “cult” and a “religion” is that the latter have been around longer”

    Not really. Cults separate you from your money, your friends, your family, your identity, and sometimes your life. Let’s not use false analogies.

    • In reply to #16 by [azsgI2IyS45:

      “The difference between a “cult” and a “religion” is that the latter have been around longer”

      Not really. Cults separate you from your money, your friends, your family, your identity, and sometimes your life. Let’s not use false analogies.

      Actually, your definition works just fine as well. Additionally it could be said that in a cult there’s a group of hapless folks following someone who realizes (if not insane) that it’s all BS. In a religion that insane/devious person has died.

    • In reply to #17 by conwaythe.contaminationist:

      “Marriage” in any form is a joke anyway – who really needs religious or secular sanction to have sex?

      Nobody. Marriage is a lot more than who you have sex with. It includes useful things like telling the State who the person is you want to have permission to turn off your life support. Of course you could cover all these other things with appropriate legal documents but the marriage certificate does that all at once. Similarly in Australia you can cover all the options by getting the State to recognise your de facto relationship but again a marriage certificate makes that much simpler.

      Michael

  9. There are more issues with marriage than simply who can and can’t perform them and where they can take place. The first issue is that on becoming an adult a man changes from Master to Mister so his marital status is unclear to others, however beforw a woman can bdcome validated and leave her childhood title behind she must become a wife. The prefix to a womans name should like a man’s be the same all her adult life, better still remove it as it serves no purpose and offers little relevant information. The second issue is that on marrying a man a woman’s surname is automatically changed and should she want to keep her maiden name (what a horrible term) she must apply to change it by deed pol. Don’t get married and perpetuate societies view that women have not achieved validation until there is a ring on her finger.

    • In reply to #19 by BowmKerry: In the UK a woman’s surname is not automatically changed on marriage. My wife has kept her maiden name for 25 years now, no problems with any government bodies, Social Services, Inland Revenue etc. We have friends who have done the same. It is a matter of personal choice the name a woman uses when married. There is no need to make a change by deed poll whichever name she chooses.

      There are more issues with marriage than simply who can and can’t perform them and where they can take place. The first issue is that on becoming an adult a man changes from Master to Mister so his marital status is unclear to others, however beforw a woman can bdcome validated and leave her childho…

      • In reply to #22 by Robert Watkin:

        In reply to #19 by BowmKerry: In the UK a woman’s surname is not automatically changed on marriage. My wife has kept her maiden name for 25 years now, no problems with any government bodies, Social Services, Inland Revenue

        The same process applied in Australia. I had to go to some effort in order to align my surname with that of my husband. I was required to contact all relevant parties and give the details of my marriage. I suppose the same thing happens today. I can see no benefit in following this tradition and I’d definitely keep my family name if I were to marry today.

  10. Fact: Scientology is the only “religion” on the planet that involves paperwork in order to join it. No branch of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism requires a signature on a dotted line. You just show up on Sunday (or Saturday) and put whatever you want in the collection plate. If you decide not to attend one weekend, people don’t show up at your house to threaten you with “breach of contract.”

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