Church of Scientology of St Petersburg & Others v Russia (European Court of Human Rights, Chamber, Application No 47191/06, 2 October 2014)
The European Court of Human Rights (‘Court’) has held that a failure to allow the Church of Scientology to register in Russia was in breach of the rights to freedom of religion and freedom of association which are protected under the European Convention on Human Rights (‘Convention’). Russian law required religious groups to be present in Russia for 15 years before applying to be registered. The lack of precision and clarity in the legislation, which, in this case, allowed the Russia Government to delay registration for more than 10 years, rendered the interference unlawful. As for the 15 year requirement, the Court, in obiter, held that such a requirement lacked a legitimate aim.
The applicants in this matter were a group of Russian citizens representing the Church of Scientology in St Petersburg. They alleged the Russian Government had refused to allow registration of the Church of Scientology as a religious group. According to the applicants, this amounted to an arbitrary denial of a legal entity status and a breach of the Convention. In particular, they alleged breaches of article 9 (freedom of religion) and article 11 (freedom of association) of the Convention.
The Church of Scientology in St Petersburg was said by the applicants to have formed in 1984. In 1995, the applicants made an initial application for registration as a religious group. After having received no response for two years, the St Petersburg Department of Justice (‘Department’) informed the applicants of the decision to ‘leave the application unconsidered’. A further five applications were made between this first refusal and 2003. Each application was denied by the Department on different technical grounds. The most recent refusal stated that the document provided by the municipal council confirming the group’s existence for 15 years – a requirement under Russian law – was ‘unreliable’.
The applicants challenged the Department’s decision in the Oktyabrskiy District Court of St Petersburg which, citing defects in the document provided by the council, found that the previous refusals of the application had been lawful. The applicants unsuccessfully appealed this decision in the St Petersburg City Court which, in May 2006, confirmed that the document provided by the municipal council was unreliable.
Relevant domestic law
This case was primarily concerned with the Federal Law on the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations Act 1997. Section 11 of the Act required ‘a document issued by a local administrative authority confirming its existence of the religious group on the given territory for a period no shorter than fifteen years’. This section was the primary reason for the rejection of the applicants’ final request lodged with the Department.
Before the Court, the Russian Government acknowledged at the outset that its refusal to register the applicants’ group constituted an interference with the right to freedom of religion. However, it also argued that the interference was ‘prescribed by law’ and each refusal for registration had been based solely on the relevant legal provisions. The interference also allegedly pursued a legitimate aim through protecting public order.
In contrast, the applicants argued that the refusals were not prescribed by law as they did not meet the standards of ‘clarity and foreseeability’ required under the Convention. The applicants also contended that, since the relevant domestic law expressly authorised municipal authorities to issue letters confirming the group’s existence, the rejection of the confirmation letter was unreasonable. The applicants further argued that the 15 year waiting period did not pursue a legitimate aim. Instead, the motivation was a desire to introduce a legislative provision that would ‘[discriminate] against foreign minority religious groups in favour of traditional religions’: at .
The Court was quick to emphasise that the right to establish a legal entity in order to act collectively in a field of mutual interest was an important aspect of the right to freedom of association. The Court also reiterated that a refusal to acknowledge a religious group as a legal entity has been found to constitute an interference with the right to freedom of religion under article 9 of the Convention.
The Court examined whether the rejection of the Church’s application for registration ‘was prescribed by law’, ‘pursued a legitimate aim’ and was ‘necessary in a democratic society’. Being ‘prescribed by law’ required the reasons for refusal to have some basis in domestic law and for the law to be formulated with ‘sufficient precision to enable the individual – if need be with appropriate advice – to regulate his own conduct’: at . The Court found that the grounds for refusing the group’s registration were not consistent throughout the numerous applications. Additionally, the evidence indicated that none of the grounds for rejection invoked by the domestic court were based on an ‘accessible and foreseeable interpretation of domestic law’: at . The Court therefore held that the refusal by the Department to allow the request by the applicants failed the ‘prescribed by law’ test.
The Court determined that, given the rejections by the Department had failed the ‘prescribed by law’ test, there was no need to examine whether the actions ‘pursued a legitimate aim’ or were ‘necessary in a democratic society’. However, the Court reaffirmed its position that a lengthy waiting period endured by a religious organisation before being recognised as a legal entity cannot be considered necessary in a democratic society: at .
Accordingly, the Court found that there had been a violation of article 9 of the Convention, interpreted in light of article 11. The applicants were awarded €7,500 in moral damages compensation.
This is the third time the European Court of Human Rights has ruled in regard to Russia on its treatment of members of the Church of Scientology (see Church of Scientology Moscow v Russia  ECHR 258 and Kimlya v Russia (European Court of Human Rights, First Section, Application Nos 76836/01 and 32782/03, 1 March 2010)). In Church of Scientology Moscow v Russia, a very similar factual situation existed. In that case the Court found that ‘the right of believers to freedom of religion…encompasses the expectation that believers will be allowed to associate freely, without state intervention’: at .
However, the practice of refusing to recognise the Church of Scientology as a religious entity is not unique to Russia. In Victoria, Australia, registration of entities using the name ‘Scientology’ was banned from 1965 from 1973, causing the Church to rename itself ‘Church of the New Faith’ to avoid these restrictions.
The status of the Church as a religious organisation has also been considered by the High Court of Australia. In 1983, the Church became involved in a litigious tax dispute, arguing that it should be eligible for a religious exemption for pay-roll tax and rates. The High Court found that the Church could be considered a religious organisation and was therefore exempt from pay-roll tax (see Church of the New Faith v Commissioner for Pay-roll tax (Vic) (1983) 154 CLR 120).
The full decision can be found online here.
Natassia Smith is an Intern at DLA Piper.