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Judges define a religion

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

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The High Court yesterday gave a broad meaning to what in law constitutes a religion, with all five judges holding that a belief in God was not an essential criterion.

The Full Victorian Supreme Court, upholding the decision of a single judge of that court, had earlier found that a belief in God was essential and that Scientology did not qualify as a religion. But this finding was yesterday unanimously overruled by the High Court.

Acting Chief Justice Mason and Mr Justice Brennan said in their joint judgment that a religion had to have two vital characteristics.

There must first be a belief in a supernatural being, thing or principle; and second, the acceptance of canons of conduct in order to give [?] to that belief.

The judge, however, made clear that canons of conduct which offended against the ordinary laws were outside the area of immunity, privilege or rights which were conferred on the grounds of religion.

Justices Wilson and Deane, who also delivered a joint judgment, could not come up with any single test for determining what constituted a religion. But they gave a collection of things to look for in determining the question.

They said an important test for a religion was that the particular ideas and practices of the "religion" involved a belief in the supernatural, "that is to say a belief that reality extends beyond that which is capable of perception by the senses".

They said: "Another is that the ideas relate to man's nature and place in the universe and his relation to things supernatural".

The Victorian Supreme Court had [?] [?]mant that scientology was not a religion. Mr Justice Crockett of that court said that "religion is essentially a dynamic relation between man and a non-human or superhuman being". He found that the doctrines of scientology were not sufficiently concerned with such a "divine. superhuman, all powerful and controlling entity".

The various descriptions used by the Victorian Court about scientology were a "sham", a "mockery" and "illegal".

But Mr Justice Murphy, of the High Court, warned yesterday that administrators and judges must resist the temptation to hold that groups or institutions were not religious "because claimed religious beliefs or practices seem fraudulent, evil or novel; or because the group or institution is new, the number of adherents small, the leaders hypocrites, or because they seek to obtain the financial and other privileges which come with religious status".