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Scientology a religion: judges

Title: Scientology a religion: judges
Date: Friday, 28 October 1983
Publisher: The Age (Australia)
Author: Garry Sturgess
Main source:

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The High Court yesterday unanimously ruled that Scientology was a religion and declared that a belief in God was not an essential qualification for an organisation to be a religion.

The decision, a rebuff to the Victorian Full Supreme Court, means that Scientologists are entitled to tax exemptions under the Victorian Payroll Tax Act.

Although the case was fought over a relatively small amount of money, $897.80, the decision could have major implications for Federal and State revenue raising authorities if fringe religious cults seek to take advantage of the numerous tax shelters which exist for religions under Federal and State law.

The five Judges sitting on the case gave extremely broad interpretations to the legal meaning of religions.

Mr Justice Murphy said that under the tests used in an earlier case on Scientology by the Victorian court to determine the legal meaning of religion, early Christianity would not have qualified.

It is the High Courts second decision this week with significant ramifications for Government revenue-raising.

On Wednesday the court ruled that Federal tax investigators could no longer use search warrants to enter solicitors offices to obtain documents covered by legal professional privilege.

Both decisions represent a victory for civil libertarians who have been increasingly concerned at the burgeoning power of the State at the expense of civil rights and freedoms.

Yesterday's decision by the court should also have far-reaching implictions for religious freedom in Australia, which is guarenteed under the Constitution. So far section 116 of the Constitution, which enshrines the freedom, has been little used, but the decision will undoubtedly lead to its full exploration by Governments looking for power for their legislative programs and by induviduals seeking to challenge Government action.

The church of Scientology has spent more than $45,000 and possibly as much as $60,000 on a legal fight which bears no immediate relationship to the small sum imvolved. But in the long run the financial rewards to the church and other like religious organisations could be enormous.

Mr Justice Murphy said yesterday that in Australia there are a great number of tax exemptions and other provisions for religious institutions.

He said that under numerous Federal and State acts, regulations and ordinances, they are exempted from taxes imposed on the public generally.

Examples are stamp duty, payroll tax, sales tax, local government rates, taxes on motor vehicle registration, hire purchase, insurance premiums, purchases and sales of marketable securities and financial transactions.

There are advantages other than financial given to religious organisations. There are censorship and blasphemy laws against those who deride or attack religious beliefs, particularly those of the Christian religion. "There are many other State and Federal laws which directly or indirectly subsidise or support religion," Mr Justice Murphy said.

Although the High Court gave a wide meaning to religion, Justices Mason and Brennan made it clear that not every group or organisation could adopt the title of religion and claim all the rights and privileges that went with them.

"The mantle of immunity would soon be in tatters if it were wrapped around beliefs, practices and observances of every kind whenever a group of adherents chose to call them a religion," they said.

Federal and State tax authorities yesterday were playing down the importance of the decision. The Victorian Commissioner of payrol tax, Mr G. J. Sebo, the Church of Scientology's opponent in the High Court case, said yesterday that he did not see "the various tax bases in Victoria being eroded because of this decision."

A first assistant secretary of the Federal Taxation office, Mr Kevin Hoctor, said that if the Federal Government did not like the result of the High Court's decision, then it could amend the law.

A spokesman for the Church of Scientology, Mr David Griffiths, described the High Court's decision as "a victory for religious freedom and a blow to psychiatrists and anti-religionists.

"Now, we won't have to pay rates, and will be able to pay some bills and invest some money in promotion," he said.