Church of Scientology and Religious Liberty

2012-06-04 02:50:57

The Church of Scientology is a religious–scientific movement that has been at the center of several legal controversies regarding the government’s treatment and regulation of new religious movements. Since its founding in the early 1950s, the Church has had to struggle for legal recognition as a religion and to counter critics who have claimed the Church’s religious and financial practices are a sham. These controversies have engendered a significant amount of litigation in the United States and foreign courts, resulting in mixed successes for the Church. Viewed cumulatively, however, the court decisions reveal the difficulties associated with applying the religious liberty principle to nontraditional religious movements.

The Church of Scientology was founded in the early 1950s by L. Ron Hubbard, best known as a science-fiction writer during the 1930s and 1940s. The religion of Scientology came out of an earlier body of Hubbard’s work called Dianetics, which proposes an alternative approach to psychology and psychiatry for treating mental disease and dysfunctioning (See Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health [1950]). The premise of Dianetics is that the human brain has indefinite power but is hampered by painful memories (‘‘engrams’’) that inhibit its proper functioning and full potential. Through a process called ‘‘auditing’’—a practice similar to abreation therapy or the uncovering of repressed memories—an individual can restore his or her mind to its full capacity. Hubbard developed a device used in auditing, called an ‘‘electropsychometer’’ (‘‘E-meter’’)—similar to a skin galvanometer or lie detector—for measuring and treating engrams. After Hubbard adapted his secular theory of Dianetics into the religious philosophy of Scientology, auditing became the latter’s central religious practice. Scientology also claims to have elements of spirituality and cosmology, with kinships to Eastern religious traditions, and has developed religious doctrines, rituals, and ceremonies governing matters such as marriage, christenings, and the ordination of clergy.

Legal controversies concerning Scientology have involved whether Scientology is a bona fide religion, thus deserving of First Amendment protections, and whether its practices should be entitled to the same tax privileges as afforded other faiths. The absence of spirituality in Hubbard’s earlier science fiction and psychological writings and the parallels in Scientology doctrines led critics to claim that Hubbard created Scientology for financial gain and to retain control over the growing Dianetics movement. In particular, allegations have centered on the Church’s graduated fee for auditing sessions, which can run into the thousands of dollars. The Internal Revenue Service initially denied the Church’s application for nonprofit tax status, claiming the Church was a commercial operation. In the early 1960s, agents of the Food and Drug Administration conducted a raid on Scientology’s Washington, D. C., church to confiscate E-meters, based on government claims the Church was engaged in false and misleading practices through its auditing. In 1969, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled, however, that Scientology is a bona fide religion and the use of the E-meter, being part of a central religious practice, did not constitute false labeling under the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. In 1973, the Internal Revenue Service relented by awarding the Church tax-exempt status.

The Church of Scientology’s attaining status as a religion has not blunted controversy or litigation. In 1979, Hubbard’s wife and several church officials were charged with conspiracy to burglarize federal government offices and steal official documents related to government investigations of Scientology. The Church has also faced civil lawsuits by former members alleging that church officials have engaged in fraud, kidnapping, and severe emotional injury associated with the recruiting and auditing of members.

The most significant legal controversy involved the Internal Revenue Service’s refusal to allow individual Scientologists to deduct the costs associated with auditing sessions from their tax liability. In Hernandez v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue (1989), the Supreme Court upheld the IRS determination that auditing fees were not deductible contributions. Although acknowledging Scientology is a recognized church and that auditing is a central religious practice of the religion, the Court agreed with the IRS that the ‘‘fixed donation’’ or fee was not equivalent to a tithe or gift to a church but was payment for a quid pro quo exchange of an identifiable benefit. Furthermore, the Court rejected the Church’s claim that this interpretation of the Internal Revenue Code violated the Church’s establishment and free exercise clause rights. Distinguishing the auditing fees from pew rents and other religious assessments recognized as deductions, the Court stated that the relevant inquiry is ‘‘not whether the payment secures religious benefits or access to religious services, but whether the transaction . . . is structured as a quid pro quo exchange.’’ The Court also found no substantial burden on Scientologists’ religious practice arising from the fact that the IRS interpretation imposed a greater financial cost to engage in auditing.

Despite its legal setbacks, Scientology has achieved full legal recognition as a religious denomination in the United States. Scientology has had greater difficulty attaining similar recognition and protection outside the United States, particularly in Germany and Great Britain, where government officials have maintained that Scientology is more a philosophy or commercial enterprise than a religion.


References and Further Reading

  • Friedman, Jerold A., Constitutional Issues in Revoking Religious Tax Exemptions: Church of Scientology of California v. Commissioner, University of Florida Law Review 37 (1985): 565–589.
  • Horwitz, Paul, Scientology in Court: A Comparative Analysis and Some Thoughts on Selected Issues in Law and Religion, DePaul Law Review 47 (1997): 86–154.
  • Hubbard, L. Ron. Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. New York: Hermitage Press, 1950.
  • Jentzsch, Herber C. ‘‘Scientology: Separating Truth from Fiction.’’ In New Religious Movements and Religious Liberty in America, edited by Derek H. Davis and Barry Hankins, 141–161. Waco, TX: J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, 2002.
  • Lamont, Stewart. Religions Inc. London: Harrap, 1986.
  • Melton, J. Gordon. The Church of Scientology. Torino, Italy: Signature Books, 2000.
  • ———. ‘‘Scientology in Europe: Testing the Faith of a New Religion.’’ In International Perspectives on Freedom and Equality of Religious Belief, edited by Derek H. Davis and Gerhard Besier, 57–68. Waco, TX: J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, 2002.
  • Miller, Russell. Bare-Faced Messiah. New York: Henry Holt, 1987.
  • Scientology: Theology and Practice of a Contemporary Religion. Los Angeles: Bridge Publications, 1998.

Cases and Statutes Cited