In October 1997, the Italian Supreme Court (the Court of Cassation) issued a landmark decision recognizing the religious bona fides of Scientology. Today this decision by the highest court in Italy is recognized by leading judicial authorities and scholars as a pivotal decision setting important standards regarding the definition of religion throughout the European Community.
“Since the Church of Scientology has been recognized in the U.S. as a religious denomination, it should have been recognized in Italy and thus allowed to practice its worship and to conduct proselytising activities.”
The Court thoroughly analyzed the criteria for defining a religion, stressed the government’s duty not to restrict religious freedom and concluded as follows:
Scientology is a bona fide religion whose activities, without exception, [are] characteristic of all religious movements.
Scholars of religion, the Court noted, acknowledge that Scientology is a religion whose aim is “the liberation of the human spirit through the knowledge of the divine spirit residing within each human being.”
In reaching its decision, the Court drew a direct comparison between the Church of Scientology religious practices and fundraising activities and those of the Catholic Church and other religions:
The very same religions which, according to the judges of the Appeals Court, should have represented the “common way of thinking” on the subject of religion, have, forever, required their believers to make donations which, in the early days of these religions, were extended in size far beyond the symbolic donations which are required in the present day.
The Supreme Court thoroughly analyzed the criteria for determining religion, concluding that Scientology is a bona fide religion. Rejecting the definition of religion used by the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court found that the lower court had erred in drawing its definition solely from Judeo-Christian concepts:
A system of doctrines centered on the assumption of the existence of a Supreme Being, who had a direct relationship with men and whom they must obey and revere…. [S]uch a definition of religion, in itself partial since derived—as asserted—exclusively from religions stemming from the Bible, is illegal under many viewpoints; it is based on philosophical and socio-historical assumptions that are incorrect.
As well, the lower court’s definition would exclude Buddhism, Taoism or any “polytheistic, shamanistic or animistic religions.” The Supreme Court therefore found that this restrictive definition violated the Italian Constitution.
Sending the case back to the Court of Appeals for reconsideration, the Supreme Court provided detailed guidance on the criteria to apply regarding Scientology as a religion. The Supreme Court directed the Court of Appeals to consider Italian and other foreign judicial and administrative decisions concerning Scientology that, the Court stated, were clearly relevant. In addition, the Court expressly directed the lower court to consider the opinions of experts as well as the views of parishioners of the Church of Scientology in Italy.
The Supreme Court instructed the lower court to examine the views of learned authorities and experts in the field of religion, not those of the general public, to determine whether Scientology is “commonly considered” to be a religion. It noted that it is irrational to rely on the consensus or majority opinion of the public in determining whether a set of beliefs is religious, as in these circumstances religious minorities would not receive the protection to which they are entitled. Rather, what is required is “a well thought through, rational evaluation of the available elements for judgment,” not something based on “intuition, impressions, feelings and states of mind.”
The Supreme Court concluded that the Church’s organizational documents constitute clear evidence of its religious nature, since these documents contain definitive language concerning the Church’s religious creed and its ultimate goal to attain knowledge of God, principles that the Court noted are common to many religions. That the Church’s organizational documents refer to the “scientific” approach of Scientology principles and techniques did not negate a finding of religiosity, because these principles and techniques are intended to attain a specific spiritual goal. Indeed, the Supreme Court recalled that Christian Churches are still considered religious even though St. Thomas Aquinas “defined theology as a science.”
The Supreme Court addressed—and rejected—a number of false allegations concerning the fundraising practices of the Church of Scientology. Just as numerous courts in other countries, as well as administrative tribunals such as the United States Internal Revenue Service, have dismissed these claims of commercialism, the Italian Supreme Court also found these false allegations to be without any basis.
The Supreme Court dismissed inflammatory and scurrilous allegations by disgruntled apostates on the grounds that they are not credible witnesses. The Court criticized the Court of Appeals for its failure to verify the information from such individuals, to ascertain the reasons for their estrangement from Scientology and to determine whether their statements were gathered in a judicial proceeding where their veracity could be examined and tested. The Court dismissed the testimony of former, disgruntled members as inherently untrustworthy and unreliable evidence.
The Court concluded that it would be “illogical” to draw adverse inferences from internal Church directives that instructed certain staff to “make money” for the Church. A basic fact of life is that all religious activity requires support through funding. The Court pointed out that the financial directives were not part of the doctrinal basis of the Scientology religion; that they constitute a de minimus part of Church literature (comprising just one or two out of more than eight thousand directives); that they are addressed only to staff members responsible for Church financial matters, not to parishioners or even general staff; and that, in any event, the directives provide that all contributed funds are to be used exclusively for the Church’s religious purposes.
The Supreme Court similarly dismissed the government’s reliance on internal directives urging staff to use fundraising techniques to encourage parishioners to purchase books or receive religious services. The Court noted that the directives were addressed only to staff members responsible for promoting the religious materials or services in question. Such methods, the Court noted, are far less harsh than, for example, the doctrine of expiation that the Catholic Church has employed to persuade believers to atone for their sins and to avoid Purgatory through the forced purchases of indulgences.
The Court directed that no adverse inferences should be drawn from the Church’s practice of requesting fixed contributions in exchange for religious services, noting that this method of fundraising is not unusual among religions. As the Court noted, “Until not many years ago, similar lists, no less detailed and precise, were known to be displayed at the doors of several sacristies of Catholic Churches and, in any case, similar information was readily available from the local priests when asking for those services.”
The Court dismissed allegations that Church staff had joined together to profit from Church activities. Such claims are illogical since all funds remain within the Church and individuals had “no possibility whatsoever—not even in the future—to share in the income of it.”
The Italian Supreme Court’s decision recognizing Scientology ended more than a decade of religious repression through attempts to suppress the Scientology religion by criminalizing its practice.
The long criminal case against Church officials amounted to no less than an assault on legitimate and protected religious rights. In December 1986, 450 carabinieri raided every Scientology Church and mission in the country, seizing their religious materials and shutting them down. Then, in June 1988, twenty-six Scientologists were arrested and imprisoned on specious charges. The prosecution interviewed over nine hundred witnesses. In the end, seventy-five persons were indicted.
When the case came to trial in 1991, the overwhelming and unequivocal evidence put on by the Church and its parishioners demonstrated that Scientology practices are unquestionably religious in nature. Indeed, as a result of the evidence put forth, the Milan Trial Court ruled in favor of the Church but, due to government appeals, the case proceeded to the Italian Supreme Court twice.
Following the Supreme Court’s landmark 1997 ruling, however, the Milan Court of Appeals confirmed the 1991 trial court ruling in favor of the Church and its parishioners and so concluded the case with a full vindication of the Church and its parishioners.
In 2001, the Italian Supreme Court again affirmed the religious bona fides of Scientology. The Church had appealed against a decision by the Milan Tax Office assessing income tax for the years 1982 and 1983. The Milan Tax Court had upheld the Tax Office’s assessments, as had the Regional Tax Court of Milan in April 1997. An appeal was filed before the Italian Supreme Court, which issued its decision 22 October 2001.
The decision by the Supreme Court’s Tax Section canceled the ruling of the Regional Tax Court and remanded the case, ordering that it be re-examined by a different section of the Regional Tax Court than the one that had upheld the assessments. The Supreme Court noted that the lower court had neglected to take into account the “numerous and by now prevailing” body of jurisprudence, including that of the Supreme Court itself, affirming the religiosity of Scientology and its associations. The Supreme Court further noted that Scientology is considered to be a religious organization not only in the United States, but also in other European countries.
Today the Scientology religion is thriving in Italy, with hundreds of thousands of Scientologists and hundreds of Scientology Churches, missions and groups throughout the country.
Scientology is fully developed in its theology, religious practice and organization. The breadth and scope of the religion include more than eleven thousand Churches of Scientology, missions and related organizations in 167 countries serving the religious needs of millions of parishioners.