The European Court of Human Rights issued a unanimous landmark decision on 5 April 2007 in favor of the Scientology religion, upholding the religious freedom of Scientologists and their religious associations throughout the forty-seven nations that have signed and ratified the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR), adopted by the Council of Europe in 1950. By ruling in favor of the Church of Scientology, the Court reaffirmed an important issue that the Russian Federation has committed itself to uphold, namely the right to religious freedom for not only Scientologists, but members of all religions throughout Europe.
The Human Rights Court in the case entitled Church of Scientology Moscow v. Russia (application no. 18147/02), overturned the Moscow city government’s refusal to register the Church of Scientology of Moscow as a religious organization. The Court found that Russia had violated the rights of the Church of Scientology under ECHR Article 11 (the right to freedom of association) “read in the light of Article 9” (the right to freedom of religion) when it refused to reregister the Church of Scientology of Moscow.
Specifically, the Human Rights Court determined that, in denying registration to the Church of Scientology of Moscow, the Moscow authorities “did not act in good faith and neglected their duty of neutrality and impartiality vis-à-vis the applicant’s religious community.” The Court also awarded the Church €10,000 in respect of non-pecuniary damage and €15,000 for costs and expenses.
This case is extremely significant because it confirms that the European Court of Human Rights considers that the Church of Scientology is a bona fide religious organization, entitled to the same rights under the European Convention on Human Rights as any other religious organization under the Convention.
The European Court of Human Rights was established to create a mechanism for the resolution of human rights complaints against States parties to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, adopted by the Council of Europe in 1950. The Court is located in Strasbourg, France, and currently has jurisdiction over forty-seven states in Europe with more than 800 million citizens in these states, making it arguably the most important international court.
The Court’s mission is to enforce the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms by ruling on complaints against human rights violations committed by States parties and brought to the Court either by other States parties or by individuals subject to the jurisdiction of a State party. States undertake to abide by the final judgment of the Court in any case to which they are parties, pursuant to Article 46 of the Convention. The final judgment of the Court is transmitted to the Committee of Ministers, which supervises its execution.
The Court’s decisions not only affect the State that is a party to a judgment, but also establish direct judicial precedent at the highest level for all forty-seven member States. The decision of the Court in Church of Scientology Moscow and its treatment of the Church of Scientology as a “religious community” entitled to the full panoply of fundamental human rights that attach to such communities, therefore have direct application and establish important and binding legal precedents throughout Europe and Eurasia.
The Church of Scientology of Moscow is a religious association and was officially registered as such in January 1994. On 1 October 1997, a new Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations (Religion Law) entered into force, requiring all religious associations previously granted the status of a legal entity to bring their articles of association into conformity with the new Religion Law and to reapply for registration with the Justice Department before 31 December 2000. Failure to obtain reregistration before the expiration of that time limit exposed the Church to the threat of dissolution by judicial decision.
The Church of Scientology of Moscow subsequently applied eleven times for reregistration to the Moscow Justice Department between August 1998 and May 2005. Each application was rejected.
The arbitrary refusal to reregister the Moscow Church under the Religion Law placed its status as a legal entity in jeopardy. The consequences of non-registration as a religious organization within the meaning of the law were extreme for the Church and its members. The rights of the Church and its parishioners, essential to the conduct of their religious activities on anything but the most basic level were seriously jeopardized, including the right to acquire, import and distribute religious literature; the ability to conduct charitable activities; the right to own and maintain religious buildings, the right to own and operate educational institutions, including theological schools; and the right to invite foreign citizens to preach and conduct religious services.
Consequently the Moscow Church of Scientology filed a legal complaint at the district-court level, which it won. The Court made it clear in its findings that the government had used subterfuge to avoid reregistration of the Church. However, the government avoided compliance with the Court’s order and, after another two years of a judicial tug-of-war, the Church petitioned the European Human Rights Court, in 2002, to hear its human rights and discrimination case against the Russian state.
When it handed victory to the Moscow Church of Scientology, the Court referred to its settled case law to the effect that, as enshrined in Article 9, freedom of thought, conscience and religion is one of the foundations of a democratic society within the meaning of the European Human Rights Convention. It is, in its religious dimension, one of the most vital elements that go to make up the identity of believers and their conception of life, but it is also a precious asset for atheists, agnostics, skeptics and the unconcerned. The pluralism indissociable from a democratic society, which has been dearly won over the centuries, depends on it.
This expansive approach is consistent with the Court’s application of a fundamental human rights policy of the European Community to religious freedom issues—“the need to secure true religious pluralism, an inherent feature of the notion of a democratic society.” Similarly the Court has emphasized the importance of “pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness, without which there is no democratic society.” As the Court has stressed, since religious entities exist in the form of organized structures, “the autonomous existence of religious communities is indispensable for pluralism in a democratic society and is thus an issue at the very heart of the protection which Article 9 affords.”
In its decision the Court makes it clear that these principles must apply to the Church of Scientology and that it would frustrate this policy of “true religious pluralism” and result in arbitrariness and unfair discrimination to treat the Church of Scientology differently than any other religious community. The Court then reaffirmed the right of religious communities such as the Church of Scientology to be free from arbitrary state interference.
The Court concluded its ruling by stating:
In view of the Court’s finding above that the reasons invoked by the Moscow Justice Department and endorsed by the Moscow courts to deny reregistration of the applicant branch had no legal basis, it can be inferred that, in denying registration to the Church of Scientology of Moscow, the Moscow authorities did not act in good faith and neglected their duty of neutrality and impartiality vis-à-vis the applicant’s religious community. In the light of the foregoing, the Court considers that the interference with the applicant’s right to freedom of religion and association was not justified. There has therefore been a violation of Article 11 of the Convention read in the light of Article 9.
On 1 October 2009, another landmark decision protecting religious freedom was delivered by the European Court of Human Rights in a Church of Scientology case, Kimlya and Others v. Russia (Applications 76836/01 and 32782/03). The Court ruled unanimously in favor of two religious groups in Russia, finding they have the right to be registered as religious organizations under Russian law. The decision determined that these groups and founders of the Church of Scientology of Surgut and the Church of Scientology of Niznekamsk have the right to religious freedom and the right of freedom of association under Articles 9 and 11 of the European Human Rights Convention.
In reaching this decision, the Court “established that the applicants were unable to obtain recognition and effective enjoyment of their rights to freedom of religion and association in any organizational form. The first applicant could not obtain registration of the Scientology group as a non-religious legal entity because it was considered to be a religious community by the Russian authorities. The applications for registration as a religious organisation submitted by the first and second applicants as founders of their respective groups and also on behalf of the third applicant were denied by reference to the insufficient period of the groups’ existence. Finally, the restricted status of a religious group for which they qualified and in which the third applicant existed conveyed no practical or effective benefits to them as such a group was deprived of legal personality, property rights and the legal capacity to protect the interests of its members and was also severely hampered in the fundamental aspects of its religious functions. Accordingly, the Court finds that there has been an interference with the applicants’ rights under Article 9 interpreted in the light of Article 11.”
The European Court of Human Rights revisited the refusal of the Russian Government to register a Scientology religious group as a religious organization under the 1997 Religion Law in Church of Scientology of St. Petersburg and Others v. Russia (App. No. 47191/06). The St. Petersburg Scientology group had been denied registration under the Religion Law on the grounds that they had not been in existence for fifteen years prior to registration, as the 1997 Religion Law requires.
Referring to its decision concerning Scientology religious groups in Kimlya, the European Court of Human Rights determined that the restricted status of religious groups that cannot register under the 1997 Religion Law “did not allow members of such a group to effectively enjoy their right to freedom of religion, rendering such a right illusory and theoretical rather than practical and effective.” Accordingly the Court found that the Russian Government’s refusal to register the Scientology religious group as a religious organization amounted to an interference with its right to religious freedom guaranteed by Article 9 of the European Human Rights Convention interpreted in light of the right to freedom of association guaranteed by Article 11 of the Convention.
Along with the Church of Scientology Moscow v. Russia decision, these decisions underline the fact that the Scientology religion and Scientology religious organizations are entitled to the same rights and protections as other religions and religious organizations under international human rights treaties, such as the European Convention on Human Rights, the OSCE Helsinki Accords, and the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
These three decisions of the European Court of Human Rights requiring registration of four Scientology religious groups as religious organizations reaffirm and definitively establish what human rights experts, academics and numerous national courts have already found: that the Church of Scientology is a religious community entitled to the full panoply of human rights and religious freedom rights that flow to such organizations. Any attempt by governments to treat a Church of Scientology differently cannot withstand scrutiny.
These ECHR judgments represent landmark decisions affecting freedom of religion across Europe. The decisions impact religious rights of the faiths existing and active in all forty-seven states subject to the European Court of Human Rights.