THE High Court yesterday decided to end God's exclusive reign over the nation's religious affairs, opening the way for many non-mainstream religions to claim the legal status of a church and all the financial and other privileges that go with that status.
In a landmark decision handed down in Perth, the Full Court unanimously rejected a narrow definition of religion and moved towards the American judicial view under which Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture and Secular Humanism have been held to be religions.
It was also a triumph for Scientology and the case of third time lucky for the Victorian Church of the New Faith which, on the facts, won exemption from payroll tax.
But more generally, the decision raises the possibility of across-the-board tax exemptions in both State and federal spheres for Scientology and other religious organisations.
"It is total affirmation of, and a win for, religious freedom in Australia," said Mr David Griffiths, a spokesman for the Church of the New Faith.
"It is also a blow to psychiatrists and the anti-religionists."
The Church of the New Faith has been engaged in a long-running battle in Victoria, and to a lesser extent throughout Australia, for recognition as a religion.
A 1965 report by a Victorian Government board of inquiry condemned Scientology as a medical and moral danger to the community.
Subsequently, the Psychological Practices Act outlawed many of Scientology's activities. That law was repealed last year, but in 1973 Scientology was recognised as a religious denomination under the federal Marriage Act.
In Victoria, the Commissioner for Payroll Tax rejected Scientology's claim for exemption, as a church, from payroll tax for the period from July 1975 to June 1977.
Although the amount at issue was only about $850, the church took the commissioner to court, "for the principle of the thing," Mr Griffiths said.
It lost the first round, and lost again on appeal to the Full Court of the Supreme Court, but yesterday won over the Full Court of the High Court in an historic decision.
The extent of exemptions granted to religious organisations was outlined in Justice Murphy's judgment yesterday.
He said: "Examples are stamp duty, payroll tax, sales tax, local government rates and the taxes on motor vehicle registrations, hire purchases, insurance premiums, the purchase and sale of marketable securities, and financial transactions.
"Ministers of religion are exempted from military conscription.
"There are many other State and federal laws which directly or indirectly subsidise or support religion."
Mr Justice Murphy went on to say that the Church of the New Faith had "easily discharged the onus of showing that it is religious," but he also sympathised with the Victorian Commissioner for Payroll Tax.
He said: "The commissioner should not be criticised for attempting to minimise the number of tax-exempt bodies. The crushing burden of taxation is heavier because of exemptions in favor of religious institutions, many of which have enormous and increasing wealth."
Scientology is a religious institution and exempt from State payroll tax, the High Court ruled unanimously yesterday.
It was the first time that the court came head on with the question "What is religion?". All the judges rejected the view that belief in a supreme being was essential to religion.
Justices Mason and Brennan, in a joint judgment, stressed the importance of the case in determining fundamental questions of religious freedom in Australia and the extent to which an individual is free to believe and act without legal restraint.
Mr Justice Murphy stressed the need to treat all religions equally, but indicated his distaste for religious tax exemptions by saying, "The crushing burden of taxation is heavier because of exemptions in favour of religious institutions, many of which have enormous and increasing wealth."
Justices Wilson and Deane stressed the need to match the evidence of the beliefs in question with the five or six main characteristics of the world's major religions.
All the judges said it was immaterial that the adherents might be misguided, illogical or gullible or that the leaders of the claimed religion had ultieroir purposes of power or commerce.
The case began when the Victorian Commissioner for Payroll Tax assessed the Church of the New Faith (the Scientologists) for $70 in payroll tax.
The Scientologists objected saying they were exempt under a clause referring to "religious institutions". Mr Justice Crockett in the Victorian Supreme Court and later three judges of the Full Supreme Court ruled against the Scientologists.
As a result of yesterday's ruling, those judgments were overturned and the commissioner was ordered to pay the costs of all three proceedings.
Justices Mason and Brennan said, "Freedom of religion, the paradigm freedom of conscience, is of the essence of a free society. The chief function in the law of a definition of religion is to mark out an area within which a person subject to the law is free to believe and act in accordance with his belief without legal restraint."
The definition affected the operation of the religious-freedom guarantee under the Constitution and many other laws granting religions special benefits.
The question of religion had received little judicial attention in Australia; it was time to grapple with it.
Religious freedom in Australia would be subverted if freedom of religion excluded minority religions which needed special protection.
"Protection is accorded to preserve the dignity and freedom of each man so that he may adhere to any religion of his choosing or to none," they said. "The freedom of religion being equally conferred on all, the variety of religious beliefs which are within the area of legal immunity is not restricted."
The judges stressed the importance of the actions of the adherents rather than the dogma itself.
"The question whether Scientology is a religion cannot be answered," they said. The question which could be answered was whether the beliefs, practices and observances as established by evidence as being accepted by Scientologists were properly described as a religion.
The criteria of religion, for the purposes of the law were twofold: "first belief in a supernatural Being, Thing or Principle; and second the acceptance of canons of conduct in order to give effect to that belief, though canons which offend against the ordinary laws are outside the area of any immunity, privilege or right conferred on the grounds of religion," such as the Mormon attitude to polygamy or the Jehovah's Witnesses pacifist ideals in time of legal prohibition against subverting the war effort.
They found parts of the writings of Scientology's founder, Mr Ron Hubbard, "impenetrably obscure", but Mr Hubbard's position was not critical. What mattered was "that the general group of adherents practise 'auditing' and accept other practices and observances of Scientology because, in doing what Mr Hubbard bids or advises them to do, they perceive themselves to be giving effect to their supernatural beliefs."
They referred to the commercial aspect of Scientology and the fact adherents had to pay for training but said, "Whatever be intentions of Mr Hubbard and whatever be the motivation of the [Church] corporation, the state of the evidence in this case requires a finding that the general group of adherents have a religion."
Mr Justice Murphy said, "The truth or falsity of religions is not the business of officials or the courts. If each purported religion had to show that its doctrines were true, then all might fail."
Administrators and judges must not discount groups because their practices seemed absurd, fraudulent, evil or novel.
"In the eyes of the law, religions are equal," he said. "The policy of the law is 'one in, all in'."
There was no single acceptable criterion of what was a religion. It was better to isolate sufficient conditions rather than necessary conditions.
He gave a very wide view as to what might be a religion.
"Any body which claims to be religious, and offers a way to find meaning and purpose to life, is religious," he said. "The list is not exhaustive; the categories of religion are not closed."
Justices Wilson and Deane isolated several characteristics: belief in supernatural, ideas on man's nature and place in the universe, codes of conduct, adherents being an identifiable group and adherents seeing their group as a religion. Most of these were satisfied by most of the world's main religions. The more of these that were satisfied, the more likely it was a religion. This was the case with Scientology.
It was important to treat it as a question of arid characterisation without looking at the utility, worth or quality of the ideas.