Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v. the United Kingdom

The European Court of Human Rights in Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-daySaints v. the United Kingdom (also in PDF) has unanimously dismissed a case brought by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often called the Mormon Church) claiming a breach of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights

The case related to the issue of Rate Relief for one of the two LDS Temples in Britain, namely the one in Preston, Lancashire. A Temple is considered, by the LDS Church to be the house of the Lord and one of the holiest places on earth. Ceremonies or “ordinances” held at the temple carry profound theological significance to Mormons, who believe as a tenet of their faith that only the worthy may be admitted. Only the most devout members of the applicant Church, who hold a current “recommend”, are entitled to enter the temples. According to para 7 of the Judgment the right to enter a Temple is explained by the Church as follows:


You must possess a current recommend to be admitted to the temple ... Only those who are worthy should go to the temple ...

The interview for a temple recommend is conducted privately between the bishop and the Church member concerned. Here the member is asked searching questions about his or her personal conduct, worthiness and loyalty to the Church and its officers. The person must certify that he is morally clean and keeping the Word of Wisdom, paying a full tithing [approximately 10% of income to be paid to the Church], living in harmony with the teachings of the Church and not maintaining any affiliation or sympathy with apostate groups ...


The standards required in order to be granted a recommend include honesty, eschewing abusive conduct, attention to family duties, marital fidelity, the adoption of healthy lifestyle practices and, for divorcees, full compliance with support orders and other legal obligations

The specific case concerned the temple at Preston, where congregational services are attended by on average 950 people a week. Under the Local Government Finance Act 1988, a valuation officer must compile and maintain a local rating list for his or her area. Premises included on the list are liable for the payment of business rates. Premises used for charitable purposes are entitled to charity business rates relief, which cuts the amount of rates payable by 80%. Places of “public religious worship” are wholly exempt from the tax. In 1998 the Preston temple was listed as a building used for charitable purpose and therefore retained a liability to pay only 20% rates, but it was refused the statutory tax exemption reserved for places of “public religious worship”. Other buildings of the Church such as its various Chapels are open to the public and attract the normal 100% rates relief.

On 5 March 2001 the Church applied to have the temple removed from the rating list, claiming the benefit of the exemption for places of “public religious worship”. On 21 October 2004 the Lancashire Valuation Tribunal granted the application for appeal and determined the temple to be exempt under the statutory provision. On 14 December 2005 the Lands Tribunal overturned that decision. The Church appealed unsuccessfully to the Court of Appeal and then appealed to the House of Lords.

In that hearing Gallagher (Valuation Officer) v. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [2008] UKHL 56 the Church argued for the first time that refusal of Rates Relief amounted to a breach of Article 9 but the House of Lords unanimously dismissed the appeal holding, on the basis of an earlier judgment (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. Henning [1964] AC 420), that as a matter of domestic law a place of “public religious worship” must be one that was open to the general public. (NB: The Henning case had concerned the other LDS Temple in Surrey)

The Government in its arguments to the ECHR did not accept that the LDS Church was in any different position in relation to the 1988 Act than any other religious organisation. The rule was of general application and concerned only the use made of the building; it did not discriminate on the basis of religious belief. Any of the Mormon places of worship, such as chapels and stake centres, that were open to the public, had the benefit of rates the exemption. The Government pointed out as an example that where Church of England churches were run by closed orders or as college chapels which were not open to the public they too did not get rates relief,

The LDS Church put in a very interesting argument summarised in para 21 of the judgment

Temple worship, by its very nature as understood by its believers, required that only those who voluntarily lived by the kinds of commitments made in the temple should be allowed to participate. This was not a case of worship being made private for the purposes of being exclusive or to provide private benefit; it was because the very nature of the worship as understood by its believers required privacy to promote the sacred character of the worship. The relevant analogy would be to insist that the tax exemption be denied to space devoted to confessionals or to the area behind the iconostasis in Orthodox churches. Just as an invitation to the general public to enter these spaces would disrupt sacred practices, so the nature of temple worship would be destroyed if there were a general requirement that the public be able to sit in.

However the argument was unsuccessful the Court fully accepting the reasoning of the House of LordsThe case fell within the margin of appreciation given to individual states and the UK was entitled to decide that tax reliefs should only be given to places of religious worship which were open to the public and so provided "public benefit"