The decision opens the way for a great many groups to gain recognition as religions in Australia or to begin taking steps which will allow for their recognition in the future.
The members of the court adopted a very broad view of what constitutes a religion, several Justices adopting the very wide views accepted in the United States which have made religion a growth industry in California.
The decision could have important implications for Federal and State revenues, numerous Federal and State Acts and regulations and ordinances which exempt religious institutions from taxes imposed on the general public, including stamp duties, payroll taxes, sales taxes, local government rates and taxes on motor vehicle registration, hire purchase, insurance premiums, the purchase and sale of marketable securities and financial transactions.
Justice Murphy, who mentioned these examples in his judgment, also said that there were "many other State and Federal laws which indirectly subsidise or support religion."
"Because religious status confers such financial and other advantages," he said, "the emergence of new religions is bound to be regarded with scepticism.
"The crushing burden of taxation is heavier because of exemptions in favour of religious institutions, many of which have enormous and increasing wealth."
But Justice Murphy did not consider that criticisms of the commercialism of Scientology by the Supreme Court of Victoria were to the point.
"Commercialism is so characteristic of organised religion that it is absurd to regard it as disqualifying," he said.
The High Court's intervention in this case followed a decision by the Victorian Commissioner for Payroll Tax that the Church of the New Faith (now known as the Church of Scientology) was not a religious organisation and therefore was not exempt from payroll duty.
The case originally came before Justice Crockett in the Supreme Court, then before a Full Court. All the Victorian judges ruled that Scientology was not a religion.
The Scientologists then sought special leave to appeal to the High Court. This was not initially granted, but the question was referred by a court of three High Court justices to a court of five, to determine both whether special leave should be granted and whether the appeal should be allowed.
Despite this initial hesitation, and the lengthy period the court deliberated, more than a year, all five Justices concluded that the courts in Victoria were wrong and that Scientology was a religion.
There were three separate judgments. Justices Mason and Brennan held that there were criteria of religion for the purposes of the law. The first was belief in a supernatural Being, Thing or Principle.
The second was the acceptance of canons of conduct in order to give effect to that belief, "though canons of conduct which offend against the ordinary laws are outside the area of any immunity, privilege or right conferred on the grounds of religion."
This qualification ensures that any guarantee of religious freedom under the Constitution or under the proposed new human rights legislation will not allow conduct which would otherwise be prevented by laws affecting the whole community.
Justice Wilson and Deane adopted an even broader definition, following the reasoning approved in US court decisions.
They said that the most that could be done was to formulate "the more important of the indicia or guidelines by reference to which" the decision about a group being a religion would be made. They said that no single characteristic could be laid down.
The guidelines were no more than aids, but it would be unlikely that a collection of ideas and/or practices would be a religion if it lacked all or most of them.
The indicia they suggested were: first, belief in the supernatural, second, the idea should relate to man's nature and place in the universe and his relation to things supernatural, third the ideas are accepted by adherents as requiring or encouraging them to observe particular standards of conduct, or to participate in specific practices having supernatural significance, fourth, the adherents must constitute an identifiable group or groups, fifth, the adherents themselves must see the collection of ideas and/or practices as constituting a religion.
They said that this last was more "controversial."
Justice Murphy's definition was "any body which claims to be religious, whose beliefs or practices are a revival of, or resemble, earlier cults, is religious.
"Any body which claims to be religious and to believe in a supernatural being, or beings, whether physical and visible, such as the sun and the stars, or a physical invisible god or spirit, or an abstract god or entity, is religious.
"Any body which claims to be religious, and offers a way to find meaning and purpose in life, is religious."
He added, "The list is not exhaustive. The categories of religion are not closed."
Scientology had previously received recognition as a religion in Western Australia, South Australia, NSW and the ACT, and as a religious denomination under the Commonwealth Marriage Act.