The Supreme Court in Hodkin v Registrar-General of Births, Deaths and Marriages  UKSC 77 has decided that Scientology is to be regarded as a Religion and that its Chapels can be registered under the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855. The relevance of the 1855 Act is that premises registered under it can then be registered to perform Marriages under the Marriage Act 1949
The Claimants are Scientologists who wanted to be Married in the Scientology Chapel in London which was not however registered under either the 1855 or 1949 Acts. This was because of the 1970 case of R v Registrar General, ex parte Segerdal  2 QB 697 where the Court of Appeal had held that Scientology was not a Religion and its Chapels were not places of Religious Worship. In Segerdal Lord Denning had memorably said of the definition of Religion and the concept of Religious Worship
'place of meeting for religious worship' as used in the Act of 1855. It connotes to my mind a place of which the principal use is as a place where people come together as a congregation or assembly to do reverence to God. It need not be the God which the Christians worship. It may be another God, or an unknown God, but it must be reverence to a deity. There may be exceptions. For instance, Buddhist temples are properly described as places of meeting for religious worship. But, apart from exceptional cases of that kind, it seems to me the governing idea behind the words 'place of meeting for religious worship' is that it should be a place for the worship of God.
"Religious worship means reverence or veneration of God or of a Supreme Being. I do not find any such reverence or veneration in the creed of this church. … When I look through the ceremonies and the affidavits, I am left with the feeling that there is nothing in it of reverence for God or a deity, but simply instruction in a philosophy. There may be belief in a spirit of man, but there is no belief in a spirit of God."
whilst Buckley LJ had said
"Worship I take to be something which must have some at least of the following characteristics: submission to the object worshipped, veneration of that object, praise, thanksgiving, prayer or intercession."
English Courts and the Registrar General were therefore bound by this definition until the Hodkin case came before the Supreme Court since only the Supreme Court has the power to overule a decision of the Court of Appeal.
In considering the 1970 Segerdal case and its relevance in the rather different cultural and legal environment of 2013 the Supreme Court noted that the rather narrow definitions used in Segerdal had been rejected by the High Court of Australia in Church of the New Faith v Commissioner of Pay-Roll Tax (Vic)  HCA 40; (1983) 154 CLR 120 (27 October 1983) , by the US Courts in the case of Malnak v Yogi 592 F.2d 197 (1979) and, to a rather more limited extent by the European Court of Human Rights in Kimlya v. Russia
Lord Toulson gave the Judgment of the Supreme Court and noted the problems with the Segerdal definition
51: Unless there is some compelling contextual reason for holding otherwise, religion should not be confined to religions which recognise a supreme deity. First and foremost, to do so would be a form of religious discrimination unacceptable in today's society. It would exclude Buddhism, along with other faiths such as Jainism, Taoism, Theosophy and part of Hinduism. The evidence in the present case shows that, among others, Jains, Theosophists and Buddhists have registered places of worship in England. Lord Denning in Segerdal  2 QB 697, 707 acknowledged that Buddhist temples were "properly described as places of meeting for religious worship" but he referred to them as "exceptional cases" without offering any further explanation. The need to make an exception for Buddhism (which has also been applied to Jainism and Theosophy), and the absence of a satisfactory explanation for it, are powerful indications that there is something unsound in the supposed general rule.
52: Further, to confine religion to a religion which involves belief in a "supreme deity" leads into difficult theological territory. On the evidence of Mrs Wilks, Scientologists do believe in a supreme deity of a kind, but of an abstract and impersonal nature. Ideas about the nature of God are the stuff of theological debate.
In Para 57 of the judgment Lord Toulson laid down what will undoubtedly now become the standard definition of religion in UK Law, despite his caveat at the end,
57: I would describe religion in summary as a spiritual or non-secular belief system, held by a group of adherents, which claims to explain mankind's place in the universe and relationship with the infinite, and to teach its adherents how they are to live their lives in conformity with the spiritual understanding associated with the belief system. By spiritual or non-secular I mean a belief system which goes beyond that which can be perceived by the senses or ascertained by the application of science. I prefer not to use the word "supernatural" to express this element, because it is a loaded word which can carry a variety of connotations. Such a belief system may or may not involve belief in a supreme being, but it does involve a belief that there is more to be understood about mankind's nature and relationship to the universe than can be gained from the senses or from science. I emphasise that this is intended to be a description and not a definitive formula.
The decision of the Supreme Court to recognise Scientology as a Religion for the purposes of the 1855 Act will undoubtedly lead to Scientology being recognised as a Religion for the purposes of Charity Law and also clearly for Discrimination Claims under the Equality Act 2010
What is also interesting in both this case and last weeks case of Mba v Merton Council the Courts have accepted that they should not allow themselves to be drawn into detailed theological arguments. Personally I welcome the decision, even though the Church of Scientology is a controversial organisation I would be concerned at any attempt by legislature or Courts to determine what are "acceptable" and "not acceptable" religions