Moscow Church of Scientology Wins Landmark Decision for Religious Freedom in the European Court of Human RightsBy William C. Wash
The European Court of Human Rights issued a unanimous landmark decision on 5th April 2007 in favor of the Scientology religion
, upholding the religious freedom of Scientologists and their religious associations throughout the forty-six 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 Articles 11 (the right to freedom of association) "read in the light of Article 9" (the right to freedom of religion), when it refused to re-register the Church of Scientology 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 euros in respect of non-pecuniary damage and 15,000 euros 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, like other faiths in the European Community, 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.
European Court of Human Rights
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 currently has jurisdiction over 46 states in Europe with over 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 over 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 do not only affect the state that is a party to a judgment, but also establish direct judicial precedent at the highest level for all 46 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 has direct application and establishes important and binding legal precedents throughout Europe and Eurasia.
The Church of Scientology of Moscow is a religious association and 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 Religion Law and to re-apply for registration with the competent Justice Department before 31 December 2000. Failure to obtain "re-registration" 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 re-registration to the Moscow Justice Department between August 1998 and May 2005. Each application was rejected.
The refusal to re-register 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. As a result of the arbitrary refusal to re-register, the rights of the Church and its parishioners essential to the conduct of their religious activities on anything but the most primitive level were seriously jeopardized, including the ability to own and operate educational institutions including theological schools, to own and maintain religious buildings, to conduct charitable activities, the right to acquire, import and distribute religious literature and the right to invite foreign citizens to preach and conduct religious services.
As a result of a complaint filed by the Church, the Nikulinskiy District Court of Moscow found, in 8 December 2000, that the Justice's Department refusal to re-register the Church was unlawful. It concluded that the Justice Department had, in essence, used subterfuge to avoid re-registration of the Church and pointed out that an association with no status as a legal entity was, in particular, prevented from renting premises for religious ceremonies and worship, receiving and disseminating religious literature or holding a bank account. It also held that that refusal had been inconsistent with international standards of law. That decision became binding and enforceable on 19 December 2000. However, the Justice Department refused to comply with it and, in March 2001, it was quashed by way of supervisory review by the government. Subsequently, the Russian Courts upheld the systematic refusal to register the Moscow Church. The Church then filed an application with the European Court in 2002.
Decision of the Court
In its decision overturning the refusal by Russian authorities to re-register the Church, the Human Rights Court determined that the Church of Scientology of Moscow was a "religious community" entitled to the rights afforded such communities by ECHR Article 9, which protects the right to freedom of religion or belief. The Court held that where the organization of a religious community is at issue, "a refusal to recognize it" not only constitutes interference with its right to freedom of association protected by ECHR Article 11, it also constitutes interference with the applicant's right to freedom of religion under Article 9 of the Convention. The Court noted that "the believer's right to freedom of religion encompasses the expectation that the community will be allowed to function peacefully, free from arbitrary State intervention." Therefore, the Court determined that the failure to recognize the Church of Scientology through rejection of registration offended these fundamental religious freedom and association rights.
As the Court determined that the Church must be treated as a religious community and that the rights attaching to such communities and their parishioners applied to the Church of Scientology, it affirmed the key principles under Article 9 that attach to the Scientology religion, its religious organizations and parishioners.
"The Court refers 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 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."1 Similarly, the Court has emphasized the importance of "pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness, without which there is no democratic society."2 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."
The Court in its decision 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 like the Church of Scientology to be free from arbitrary State interference.
"While religious freedom is primarily a matter of individual conscience, it also implies, inter alia, freedom to 'manifest [one's] religion' alone and in private or in community with others, in public and within the circle of those whose faith one shares. Since religious communities traditionally exist in the form of organised structures, Article 9 must be interpreted in the light of Article 11 of the Convention, which safeguards associative life against unjustified State interference. Seen in that perspective, the right of believers to freedom of religion, which includes the right to manifest one's religion in community with others, encompasses the expectation that believers will be allowed to associate freely, without arbitrary State intervention. Indeed, 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. The State's duty of neutrality and impartiality, as defined in the Court's case-law, is incompatible with any power on the State's part to assess the legitimacy of religious beliefs."
The decision of the Human Rights Court in the Moscow Church of Scientology case mandates that States cannot intervene arbitrarily into religious matters and are strictly prohibited from evaluating or reinterpreting the internal validity of religious beliefs genuinely held by individual believers or religious communities like Scientology. Any attempt to investigate, evaluate or question Scientology beliefs would thus violate the duty of a State to be neutral and impartial.
The Court also found that the only necessity capable of justifying an interference with the rights to religious freedom and association is one that springs from "democratic society." It noted that the State's power to interfere "must be used sparingly" and be "construed strictly" so that only "convincing and compelling reasons" that legitimately constitute a "pressing social need can justify restrictions" on these fundamental freedoms. The Court emphasized that the States "have only a limited margin of appreciation, which goes hand in hand with rigorous European supervision embracing both the law and the decisions applying it." The type of arbitrary conduct at issue in this case clearly did not meet these criteria.
The Court then dismissed the government's claims that the refusal to register the Moscow Church of Scientology did not constitute a violation of the Church's fundamental human rights as it was not dissolved and could continue to operate. Instead, the Court applied its findings in Moscow Branch of The Salvation Army v. Russia case to find that the Moscow Church of Scientology was being prevented from exercising its full range of religious activities.
"The Court has already found in a similar case that this situation disclosed an interference with the religious organisation's right to freedom of association and also with its right to freedom of religion in so far as the Religions Act restricted the ability of a religious association without legal-entity status to exercise the full range of religious activities (see The Moscow Branch of The Salvation Army v. Russia). These findings are applicable in the present case as well."
Likewise, the Human Rights Court found that the government's actions constituted an interference with the Church of Scientology's rights to freedom of association and religion.
"The Court has expressed the view that a refusal by the domestic authorities to grant legal-entity status to an association of individuals may amount to an interference with the applicants' exercise of their right to freedom of association. Where the organisation of the religious community is at issue, a refusal to recognise it also constitutes interference with the applicants' right to freedom of religion under Article 9 of the Convention. The believers' right to freedom of religion encompasses the expectation that the community will be allowed to function peacefully, free from arbitrary State intervention."
The Court then concluded by stating that:
"[I]n view of the Court's finding above that the reasons invoked by the Moscow Justice Department and endorsed by the Moscow courts to deny re-registration 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."
This is not the first time that the Strasbourg organs have recognized the right of a Church of Scientology to exercise the right to freedom of religion for itself and on behalf of its members. The Church of Scientology has previously been before the European Commission on Human Rights in a case that decided that a Church could represent its members to assert their religious rights under Article 9. See, X and Church of Scientology v. Sweden (16 DR 109 [Ecom HR 1979]). The Commission concluded that the Church of Scientology, as "a Church body is capable of possessing and exercising the rights contained in Article 9(1) in its own capacity as a representative of its members." Implicit in this is the corollary conclusion that Scientology is a bona fide religion.
Moreover, on 9 June 2005, the European Court of Human Rights (First Section) issued an important admissibility decision concerning issues relating to the registration of two Scientology Churches as a religious organization under Russian national law. In that case, Kimlya, Aidar Sultanov and Church of Scientology of Nizhnekamsk vs Russia (Application nos. 76836/01 and 32782/03), the Court considered separate applications regarding the refusal of Russian authorities to register Scientology Churches as religious organizations filed by founding members of two Churches of Scientology, the Church of Scientology of Surgut City in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Region of the Russian Federation, and the Church of Scientology of Nizhnekamsk in the Tatarstan Republic of the Russian Federation.
In its admissibility decision, the European Court of Human Rights determined, after examining extensive submissions and arguments by the parties, that the founding members and the Church's complaint regarding the refusal of Russian authorities to re-register it was admissible.
"The Court considers, in the light of the parties' submissions, that this part of the applications raises serious issues of fact and law under the Convention, the determination of which requires an examination of the merits."
Along with the Church of Scientology Moscow vs 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.
Church of Scientology Moscow v. Russia is an historic decision that will serve to ensure greater religious freedom not only to Scientologists but to members of all other religions throughout the 46 countries that have signed and ratified the European Human Rights Convention and have agreed to honor and abide by final judgments issued by the highest Court in Europe.
This case is extremely significant because it confirms that the European Court of Human Rights considers that the Church of Scientology, like other faiths in the European Community, is a bona fide religious organization entitled to the same rights as any other religious organization under the Convention.
The Court's reiteration of the key principles underlying the right to freedom of religion in this case is also significant. As the Church of Scientology is treated as a "religious community" by the Court, any actions taken by any of the 46 Contracting State Parties that have agreed to abide by Human Rights Court judgments must comply with these key principles in their treatment of the Church of Scientology and Scientologists.
- European Convention on Human Rights jurisprudence makes it clear that, in light of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion protected by Article 9, the government is prohibited from evaluating matters relating to religion and may not adopt measures that vest officials with very wide discretion regarding issues relating to religion.
- The European Court of Human Rights has also emphasized that, in exercising its regulatory power in this sphere and in its relations with various religions, denominations and beliefs, the State has a duty to remain neutral and impartial. Even seemingly innocuous administrative actions restricting the rights of religions operate as a lethal weapon against the right to freedom of religion.
- The European Court of Human Rights has also made it clear that, while religious freedom is a matter of individual conscience, it also protects and includes freedom to manifest one's religion alone and in private or in community with others, in public and within the circle of those whose faith one shares. Bearing witness in words and deeds is bound up with the existence of religious convictions. That freedom includes the right to hold religious beliefs, to practice a religion and to acquire and use religious artifacts necessary for such practice. Article 9 lists a number of ways to manifest religion or belief, namely worship, teaching, practice and observance.
- Article 9 encompasses the expectation that believers will be allowed to associate freely, without arbitrary State intervention. Indeed, 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.
- European Convention jurisprudence makes it clear that, in light of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion protected by Article 9, any different treatment based on religion is inherently repugnant and suspect. That is the very reason why the European Court of Human Rights decided in Hoffman v. Austria, 17 EHRR 293 (1994) that any disparate treatment "based essentially on a difference in religion alone is not acceptable."
Church of Scientology Moscow v. Russia reaffirms and definitively establishes what human rights experts, academics and numerous national courts have already found: that Scientology is a bona fide religion and 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.
Church of Scientology Moscow v. Russia stands as a landmark decision affecting freedom of religion across Europe, as the decision will impact religious rights in all states subject to the European Court of Human Rights.
1Manoussakis. Others v. Greece, (59/1995/565/651) (26 September 1996), paragraph 44.
2 Manoussakis, paragraph 41.
William C. Walsh is a District of Columbia-based human rights attorney who specializes in religious freedom issues. He is regularly engaged in assisting and advising counsel in national cases in European countries on international human rights issues including representing clients before administrative ministries on religious recognition matters in the United States and in a number of countries in Europe. He has prepared expert opinions and submissions on the human rights dimension of proposed legislation affecting minority rights in former Soviet Union countries. He has prepared submissions in cases before the European Court of Human Rights and the United Nations, and represents an OSCE NGO as counsel on OSCE religious dimension seminars focusing on minority religious rights. He also regularly represents clients before the Department of State regarding violations of human rights in other countries, including Americans who are targets of discrimination abroad due to their association or beliefs.
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