The West Australian, Fri 28 Oct 1983, p16
FIVE judges of the High Court decided unanimously yesterday that Scientology is a religion.
After wrestling with the near-impossible task of finding a legal definition of "religion", the court concluded that in any event Scientology qualified.
It upheld an appeal by the Church of the New Faith Incorporated (now known as the Church of Scientology Incorporated) against the Victorian Commissioner of Payroll Tax.
The Scientology organisation is now exempt from payroll tax in Victoria as it was already in Western Australia, South Australia, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory.
It is also, like other religious institutions, exempt from stamp duty, sales tax local government rates and the taxes on motor-vehicle registration, hire purchase, insurance premiums and financial transactions.
This fact drew comments from three of the five judges.
Justices Wilson and Deane remarked that, though Scientology must be accepted as a religion, that did not mean that it or its members were beyond the taxing powers of the State.
Mr Justice Murphy said that the Commissioner of Payroll Tax 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 favour of religious institutions, many of which have enormous and increasing wealth," he said.
He quoted a comment by the former president of the National Council of Churches in the U.S., that, in view of their favoured tax position, America's churches "with reasonably prudent management ... ought to be able to control the whole economy of the nation within the predictable future."
All five judges emphasised the danger of defining "religion" narrowly so as to exclude the smaller, less orthodox churches.
"Freedom of religion, the paradigm freedom of conscience, is of the essence of a free society," said Justices Mason and Brennan.
"There can be no acceptable discrimination between institutions ... which the majority of the community recognise as religious and institutions ... which lack that general recognition."
Mr Justice Murphy thought that the court should not attempt any definition.
"The truth or falsity of religions is not the business of officials or the courts," he said.
"If each purported religion has to show that its doctrines were true, then all might fail."
On this approach, any body that claimed to be religious and offered a way to find meaning and purpose in life was religious.
Justices Mason and Deane decided on two criteria: Belief in a supernatural being, thing or principle; and the acceptance of canons of conduct in order to give effect to that belief.
Justices Wilson and Deane came up with five guidelines - most importantly, that the ideas involved belief in the supernatural, that reality extended beyond that which was capable of perception by the senses.
"Religion is not confined to the relationship of man with his Creator, either as a matter of law or as a matter of theology," they said.
They concluded: "Regardless of whether the members of the applicant are gullible or misled or whether the practices of Scientology are harmful or objectionable, the evidence, in our view, establishes that Scientology must for relevant purposes be accepted as a religion in Victoria."
For Scientology, this ultimate victory comes as the high point in a battle it has been waging in Victoria since 1965 when its teaching was outlawed after an inquiry reported that Scientology was evil.