Scientology and the universality of religious freedom

Last week, a Moscow high court declared that Scientology does not comply with the country’s federal law on religious freedom, and therefore is ineligible for any protections under Russian law. Freedom of religion rests on a presumption of state neutrality, whereby the state sets aside evaluative judgements on any given denomination, however nutty or commercialised, and recognises any religion’s license to exist unencumbered by the leanings and whims of government.

The Church of Scientology opened its first branch in Moscow in 1994. 17 years later, an expensive new headquarters was erected in the city’s Garden Ring, just one mile away from Moscow’s iconic Red Square. Scientology enjoys a prominent position in the Russian capital, and it has attracted suspicious and resentful glares from Russian officials who intend to set up a commission to oversee the Church of Scientology’s liquidation by June 2016. Lawyers speaking on behalf of the church said that it had violated no bans, and that the justice ministry’s representatives had failed to deliver any serious reasons to justify its liquidation. Instead, the threat of closure violated the rights of‘ “tens of thousands of believers”, who in joining and sustaining membership of the Church of Scientology are employing their democratic, constitutionally-enshrined rights to freedom of conscience and freedom of assembly.

There are two debates going on here, and they have been conflated both in the courtroom and in media reaction. First there is the question of whether some particular institution or mode of thought qualifies as a religion. Second there is the question of whether all religions should enjoy guaranteed freedom to exist without expectation of interference by the state. Those who oppose Scientology have had the most success in Russia by engaging with the first question: whether or not Scientology counts as a religion. The case for Scientology’s right to exist without state intervention is then dismissed once it is established that Scientology is not a religion. Of course, that is much harder than it might sound, since there are no obviously agreed criteria necessary for something to qualify as a religion. What is more, the constitution, which might reasonably be hoped to provide some fixed set of criteria to settle that dispute, is unhelpfully vague. That is the case with the Russian constitution, but it is also true of many nations’ legislation, including many countries in western Europe.

The second question is arguably less controversial. All religions should receive equal treatment under the law. Failure to respect this premise is a blatant violation of religious freedom if anything is. If thousands of people identify with Scientology as their religion, that ought to be sufficient to demonstrate that it has just as much right to count as a religion in Russia as, say, Sikhism, which has similarly low numbers of adherents in that country. It is not acceptable to ban certain groups which are seen as manipulative or predatory.

Religious freedom takes the right to legislate on religious conviction out of the hands of political leaders, with all their inevitable assumptions and biases, and guarantees the public sphere as a realm of neutrality and liberty. Any violation of that principle is a threat to our democratic liberties, however much we might think Scientology is silly, wicked, or thoroughly illusory.

Image: Stephen Blythe

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