Ecclesiastical law

Tag: R v Registrar General ex parte Segerdal

Places of Worship: Mr Segerdal is vindicated

R v Registrar-General ex parte Hodkin (2013) UK Supreme Court 77, and 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 Segerdal case, it will be recalled, concerned the registration of a chapel belonging to the Church of Scientology, under the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855.  Mr Segerdal applied for judicial review of the Registrar’s refusal to register the chapel.  His case is discussed in a separate blogpost, which appears below.

The Court of Appeal dismissed Mr Segerdal’s application for 2 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).

Then Ms Hodkin, another Scientologist, challenged the Registrar’s refusal to register her chapel.  This time, the Supreme Court granted the application for judicial review, and ordered the Registrar to register the chapel.

In giving its decision on Ms Hodkin’s application, the Supreme Court overruled the Court of Appeal’s decision in Segerdal, though on point (2) only.  It held that the Court of Appeal’s understanding of ‘religion’ and ‘religious worship’ had been too narrow.  On the evidence of the Church of Scientology’s religious belief and practice, the Registrar was not justified in refusing to register the chapel.  The Supreme Court observed that the language of the 1855 Act ‘showed an intentionally broad sweep’ concerning religious worship (para 56), and that the Registrar and the secular courts should not engage in ‘fine theological or liturgical niceties’ concerning the registration of a place of worship (cf. para 63).  It was also influenced by the decision of an Australian court to the effect that Scientology was ‘properly to be described as a religion’ (para 40).

However, the Supreme Court did not overrule the Segerdal decision on point (1).  On the contrary, Lord Wilson held that

‘in Segerdal, the Court of Appeal was correct to rule that the function of the Registrar-General is to record a place certified to her only if it is a place of religious worship.  It follows that she has the right to investigate whether a place is one of religious worship and that, if she concludes that a place is not one of religious worship, then, subject to judicial review … she has a duty not to record it.  Whether she chooses, in depth or at all, to investigate an assertion that a place certified to her is one of religious worship is a matter for her discretion’ (para 68).

His Lordship conceded that this conclusion was ‘not free from difficulty’ when measured against the provisions and wording of the 1855 Act (para 69).  As he correctly observed, ‘there is no … express reference in [the 1855 Act] to the need for the [Registrar] to be ‘satisfied’ that a place is indeed one of religious worship before she records a certificate which so claims’ (para 77).  He also acknowledged that the Registrar ‘is unlikely to have any particular expertise’ in deciding what is or is not ‘religion’ and ‘worship’.

Lord Wilson gave an interesting account of the legislative history of the 1855 Act.  Though passed in the mid-19th century, it is descended from the Toleration Act 1688.  In the wake of the Glorious Revolution, a limited, very limited, religious freedom was granted in England.  Non-Anglican places of worship were required to be certified as such, otherwise the worshippers could be punished for attending it.  Certification was thus a legal duty, breach of which attracted a legal sanction.

Attitudes changed in the 19th century.  The practice of religion, even outside the Established Church, came to be seen as a good thing, to be encouraged.  Non-Anglican places of worship were therefore granted privileges such as exemption from rates.  The solemnisation of marriages was also permitted in such places.

Certification of a place of religious worship therefore ceased to be a duty backed by a sanction, and became instead a right which attracted privileges.  This indicates the difficulty with the regime of self-certification that the 1855 Act, on its plain wording, appears to provide.  If certification opens the door to valuable privileges, there is an obvious incentive to register a certificate that is either downright dishonest or based on an unacceptably broad definition of ‘religion’ or ‘religious worship’.  Yet the certifier is a judge in his own cause.

Lord Wilson noted another difficulty with self-certification.  The Marriage Act 1994, which was of course passed many years after Segerdal, permitted the solemnisation of marriage in secular places such as hotels.  However, marriage in secular places is ‘hedged about by regulations’ (para 84), which do not apply to marriage in places of religious worship.  The 1994 Act was passed on the assumption that the Court of Appeal’s interpretation of the 1855 Act in Segerdal was correct.  If the interpretation was incorrect, hotels and other secular institutions might simply evade the burdensome regulations imposed by the 1994 Act by certifying themselves as places of religious worship under the 1855 Act.

The Supreme Court’s conclusion on self-certification therefore makes sense in policy terms.  However, Lord Wilson’s analysis of the Registrar’s function is indeed ‘not free from difficulty’.  The Registrar has a ‘duty’ not to record a certified place if she decides that it is not really a place of religious worship.  However, in reaching her decision, she is apparently under no duty to investigate a certificate, since investigation ‘is a matter for her discretion’.  If she does investigate, the 1855 Act does not provide her with any expert assistance or other resources to do this.

Places of Worship: The Segerdal Case

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.