The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the church of the Mormon religion, has sued the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland because of the denial of the business rate exemptions given to buildings used for public religious worship. While the Church is registered as a private unlimited company in the United Kingdom, the House of Lords in 2008 held that the building could not qualify as a “place of public religious worship.”
The property at issue is a temple located in Preston, Lancashire. The Mormon religion sees their temples as extremely holy locations and believes that ceremonies held there are only for those worthy enough to be exposed to such profound theological observances. Therefore, only the most devout can be “recommended” and are able to enter these temples. In order to be considered, the individual must be honest, attentive to familial duties, ensue a faithful marriage, shun abusive conduct, live a healthy life style, among other things.
The exemption at issue involves the Local Government Finance Act of 1988 that allows places of public religious worship to be completely exempt from business tax rates on their property. Places used for charitable purposes are exempt from 80% of these rates, and this is the tax treatment that was subjected to the temple in Lancashire.
The House of Lords held that for a place to be considered a “place of public worship”, it must be open to the general public. While the services were attended by approximately 950 people a week, their exclusivity did not qualify the temple to be a place of public worship. In front of the European Court of Human Rights, the Church argued that such refusal to exempt the property was religious discrimination, in violation of Article 14’s prohibition of discrimination as applied to Article 9’s freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.
The ECHR found that there was no violation of Article 9 and 14, holding the refusal to exempt the temple has little effect on the right of its Church members to practice their religion. It further pointed out that the Church need only pay 20% of the required property taxes and distinguished this case from others where religious organizations were severely financially burdened by the policies of the State.
Do you believe the ECHR ruled correctly? Do you think a religion should be treated differently from other religions if they require exclusive membership? If so, how come this is not considered discrimination?