Places of Worship: The Segerdal Case

by Philip Jones

R v Registrar-General ex parte Segerdal (1970) 1 All England Reports 1 (High Court) and 3 All England Reports 886 (Court of Appeal)

The California-based Church of Scientology wished to register an English chapel under the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855. 

The minister of the chapel, Mr Segerdal, provided the required certificate to the Registrar-General.  However, the Registrar refused to register the chapel.  He accepted that the scientologists met together in the chapel, but denied that they met there for the purpose of religious worship.

Mr Segerdal applied for judicial review of the Registrar’s decision.  He produced literature published by the Church of Scientology, in which it described itself as a ‘non-denominational’ religion with a creed containing two references to God.  The literature also referred to the holding of ‘church services’.

Mr Segerdal’s application was dismissed by the High Court, for two reasons:

(1) under the 1855 Act, the Registrar ‘is not only entitled but bound to enquire whether the place mentioned in the certificate is indeed a place … for religious worship (1, p.6) and

(2) on the evidence, the Registrar had been ‘fully justified in refusing to register the chapel as a place of meeting for religious worship’ (3, p.10).

The courts’ point was that, if the Registrar did not inquire whether a place certified to him was indeed a place of worship, the register would become inaccurate and meaningless.  Hence they concluded that the Registrar’s function ‘is not merely ministerial’ (1, p.6).

Lord Denning expanded on this point in the Court of Appeal:

‘because of the extreme latitude given to the certifier … a mere attendant or occupier can[not] certify a place, when he may have little or no ground for his certificate, and yet call on the Registrar-General to record it … without enquiry.  That would lead to many abuses.  No, that cannot be’ (3, p.888).

The procedure of the 1855 Act must be clearly understood.  The Act provides that places of worship are certified to the Registrar, not by him.  It is the occupant, minister or other attendant of the place of worship (in this case, Mr Segerdal) who certifies it as such, not the Registrar.  If Parliament had intended to constitute the Registrar as the certifying authority, it would have provided that the occupant, minister etc should apply to, or petition, the Registrar to certify their chapel as a place of worship. 

The judgments in the case raise the suspicion that, although the courts did formally acknowledge that Mr Segerdal was the certifier, they nevertheless treated him as if he was a mere applicant for certification.  In effect they attributed to the Registrar the function that the Act conferred on Mr Segerdal. 

The question of certification drew an uncharacteristically snobbish remark from Lord Denning: ‘the certifier may be a lowly or ignorant person who is not capable of knowing what is a place of meeting for religious worship’ (3, p.889).  As a traditional Church of England man, he would have had little natural sympathy for a Californian cult.  His colleague, Lord Justice Winn, even hinted at a judicial prejudice against scientology, owning to ‘a possibly irrational, possibly ill-founded, but very definite opinion …’ (3, p.891). 

Yet, as Lord Denning himself observed (3, p.887), the purpose of the 1855 Act was to grant freedom of worship to all, regardless of social or educational background.

Freedom of worship demands that people, however lowly or ignorant, must be free to decide for themselves what religious worship is.  It is not much freedom if people can only worship according to a fashion that the secular state regards as worship.  The 1855 Act therefore provides for a regime of self-certification.

Moreover, the certifier, whatever his limitations, is better qualified than the Registrar to certify that his chapel or meeting place is indeed a place of religious worship.  He will be familiar with the place and with the activity that goes on there.  The Registrar is not.  The definition of ‘religious worship’ is a theological or sociological question.  What special qualifications or expertise does the Registrar possess to answer this question?  The 1855 Act does not provide that the Registrar should possess such qualifications, nor that he should take expert advice on the question.

S.8 of the 1855 Act empowers the Registrar to cancel a certificate.  However, this provision only applies to a place of worship that has previously been registered but ‘has wholly ceased to be used as such’.  Under s.8 the Registrar is merely required to determine whether or not religious worship still goes on at the registered place.  This is a simple question of fact, which is presumably ascertained by a letter to the last known occupant or minister of the place.  S.8 does not require the Registrar to judge whether a particular activity is or is not religious worship.

Lord Denning was, of course, correct that the procedure under the 1855 Act is open to abuse.  As he observed, registration under the 1855 Act confers exemption from rates and other privileges (3, p.887).  Like all statutes, the 1855 Act must not become an instrument of fraud, such as tax evasion, sham marriage or some other dishonesty. 

The Registrar must therefore be entitled to refuse to register a dishonest certificate.  In this case, however, there was no question of dishonesty.  Mr Segerdal genuinely believed that his chapel was a place of worship.

It is possible that the meaning of ‘religious worship’ was a less complex question in 1855 than it became in later years.  S.3 of the 1855 Act refers to ‘the religious worship of Protestant dissenters or other Protestants, or Roman Catholics, or persons professing the Jewish religion’.  Parliament in 1855 would have known nothing of Californian cults and oriental mysticism.

However, s.3 makes clear that the Act applies to ‘any other body or denomination of persons’.  It is not restricted to some ‘mainstream’ Judaeo-Christian tradition of worship.     

The courts suggested that ‘religious worship’ must involve ‘veneration to a being regarded as divine’ (1, p.7).  As Lord Denning recognised, this definition had implications for groups other than the Church of Scientology, which do not worship divine beings.  He cited the example of Buddhists (3, p.890).  Quakers and Unitarians (both well-known sects by 1855) might also find it rather hard to satisfy the definition.

It is arguable that the Registrar should refuse to register a certificate which, though not dishonest, is plainly wrong and misconceived in representing a particular place as a place of worship.  The reports of this case show that the courts examined the scientologists’ literature in detail and engaged in an erudite discussion of the meaning of the words ‘religion’, ‘worship’ and ‘prayer’. 

This depth of examination of the scientologists’ creeds and practice demonstrates that Mr Segerdal’s certificate was not plainly wrong and misconceived.  If it had been, a detailed, erudite discussion would not have been necessary.  

The High Court observed that ‘it is a matter of controversy whether scientology is a religion at all’ (1, 8).  Mr Segerdal must therefore have had arguable reasons for representing his chapel as a place of worship, even though those reasons were disputed.  Any doubt or controversy should have been resolved in favour of his certificate.   

It is therefore argued that, as the minister and certifier of the chapel, his certificate should have been accepted for registration.  That would have been consistent with both the wording and the purpose of the 1855 Act, which was to ensure freedom of worship by a process of self-certification.