[Note: Typos preserved. The paragraph concerning "seized documents" seems apropos of nothing; I have no idea why it's there.]

The Sydney Morning Herald, Sat 29 Oct 1983, p3

Sects welcome court decision on Scientology


Sects which have not been officially recognised as religions are confident a High Court ruling that the Church of Scientology is a religious institution will help them gain recognition.

Ananda Marga followers, disciples of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, commonly known as Orange People, and members of the Unification Church, often referred to as Moonies, said yesterday they hoped that Thursday's decision would work in their favour.

And the Church of Scientology's public affairs department director, the Rev Audrey Devlin, said the Church's switchboard has been "jammed" with congratulatory phone calls.

"We will be taking things carefully. We haven't had a formal meeting about the decision yet," she said.

"I suppose there will be financial benefits, but the court action was to get official recognition."

The High Court action challenged the religion's liability to pay payroll tax to the Victorian Government, and the court ruled that the Church was a religious institution and therefore exempt from the tax in Victoria.

Ms Devlin said the Church has not paid payroll tax in NSW since 1973, when the NSW Commissioner of Payroll Tax deemed that it was exempt.

A spokesman for the Ananda Marga, Mr Gary Coyle, said the group's legal advisers would examine the decision to assess its effects.

"Certainly we welcome the decision from our personal point of view and from a religious point of view," Mr Coyle said. "We will be looking at it to see how it applies."

He said the group, which has about 100 members in NSW and 300 in Australia, had been recognised as a charity in NSW since the early 1970s as it has food and clothing distribution programs.

"What that means for the purpose of audits is that money donated to us does not have a tax charge," he said. "Perhaps one of the main benefits will be less media criticism."

The director of Rajneesh services in Australia, Deva Sudeep, said the movement had followed the High Court challenge and the decision was being studied by the group's legal representatives.

"The decision is important to us. We have certainly always called ourselves a religion," Sudeep said.

She said Sydney members have contemplated incorporating the movement as a company. Its business enterprises were established as separate companies.

Members of the movement operate a vegetarian restaurant called Zorba the Buddha at Taylor Square and a handyman service. Rajneesh followers recently opened a new meditation centre in a rented premises in Paddington.

Sudeep estimated that there are about 300 members of the group in Sydney and between 1,500 and 2,000 in Australia, with Perth having the largest number.

The seized documents were surrendered yesterday afternoon.

The director of the Unification Church in NSW, Mr Bevin Williamson, said the movement was not yet ready to apply for recognition as a religious institution, but the High Court judgment would speed up the process.

He said the movement had about 20 members in Sydney and about 200 in Australia. It has its Sydney headquarters in a rented Chippendale terrace house.

The president of the Sydney Hare Krishna temple, Mr Tony Kayse, said the movement had been recognised as a religion by the Federal Attorney-General about 10 years ago.

"The decision does not really affect us. We have already got all the benefits. We don't pay things like stamp duty and we get exemption from sales tax for things we buy for the temple," Mr Kaye said.

In handing down Thursday's decision, one of the five High Court judges, Justice Murphy, estimated that there were about 500 distinct religious groups in Australia, and said their proliferation would present difficulties in testing public acceptability.

Being a religion can have its advantages


Being a religious body can have certain financial advantages.

You do not pay council rates, you are eligible for exemption from NSW land tax, payroll tax, stamp duties and Financial Institutions Duty, you do not pay water rates (but are levied for water used and a set sewerage charge) and you may be granted a lower electricity tariff.

The only problem has been that until Thursday's High Court decision, there has not been a legal definition of a religious body under which exemption could be determined. It has been very much a decision for the authority involved in each case.

Churches apply to have the land they own declared non-ratable. The council then decides the claim, with the Land and Environment Court making a judgment in the case of disputes.

Whether or not land qualifies for council rates depends not on the ownership of the land but for what it is being used. For example, church-owned land which is leased by a commercial enterprise is ratable.

The Local Government Act, besides exempting land owned by the State or Federal Goverments, schools, public places or scouting halls, also exempts land occupied by a church, the residence of a minister of religion, buildings used for religious teaching or training, or used solely as the residence of the official head of any religious body.

If Sydney City Council has any doubts about the authenticity of a religious body applying for exemption from rates, it refers the application to its solicitors.

This is what it did when the Church of Scientology applied for exemption from its rates last year, and legal advice was received that Scientology was not a recognised religion.

The church applied for exemption from rates on its property at 201 Castlereach Street, City. However, following the council's refusal to grant the exemption, the church has paid rates of $12,467, based on a land value of $350,000.

The right of religious bodies and denominational schools not to pay council rates costs Sydney City Council ratepayers $1.9 million each year. These bodies own land estimated by the NSW Valuer-General to be worth $53.5 million.

However, this is a very conservative figure, as the Value-General has not valued many non-ratable properties since 1968.

One council which is particularly affected by the non-ratability of religious land is Manly, where the Roman Catholic Church has large holdings. The total value of church land is about $10 million, representing a loss of about $85,000 to $90,000 in rates.

Manly Council has a policy of charging religious bodies double the normal garbage collection fee because they are not ratable.

A spokesman for the Metropolitan Water, Sewerage and Drainage Board said yesterday that following the High Court judgment it appeared that the way was open for the Church of Scientology to apply to the board for exemption from water rates.

A spokesman for Sydney County Council said that religious bodies did not qualify for any special concession, although at the general manager's discretion, they could qualify for a lower institutional tariff.

To gain exemption from NSW land tax, payroll tax, stamp duties and Financial nstitutions Duty, religious institutions must apply to the individual offices in the Department of Finance which administer these taxes.

Until the High Court ruling, these offices did not have a legal definition of a religious body.

A spokesman for the Minister for Finance, Mr Sheahan, said yesterda that the Government had been aware of the court case for some time and was now seeking legal advice on its implications for NSW.

The department's policy had been to grant autonomy to the individual taxation offices in determining which cases were to be exempted.

[Press articles on Scientology]