Translation: Anton W. Hein, ReligionNewsBlog.com
Already back in 1947, L. Ron Hubbard – then still a science fiction writer – proclaimed that getting rich was easy: ‘The way to make a million dollars is to start a religion.’ Subsequently, Hubbard founded the Church of Scientology in the U.S. – a pseudo-philosophy with currently followers across the world.
Since the seventies Scientology also has a department in the Netherlands: the Scientology Kerk Amsterdam, at the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal. And followers of L. Ron have taken his words to heart: Scientology is, worldwide, guesstimated to have billions.
In the Netherlands, when are you permitted to call yourself a ‘church’? Would you have to be officially approved? And what kind of legal ‘person’ are you as a church? A foundation or an association, for example?
If a group of people with any kind of religious perception whatsoever wants to start a church, they are completely free to do so, says T. van der Ploeg, professor Church Law at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU). “You only need something of common god worship, statutes, and a governing board. It is not necessary to establish a separate ‘legal person’ – a foundation, for example – because article 2 of Civil Law, book 2 states that churches automatically have a legal personality.
Aside from this, churches are (with the exception of succession rights from an inheritance) exempted from any kind of taxation. “They do not have to pay taxes for their activities,” says M. van Overbeeke, professor Fiscal Law at the VU,” except if they develop commercial activities with which they are in competition with other commercial enterprises.”
That fiscal freedom makes the founding of churches very attractive, especially for the category of gurus that only want to fill their pockets.
A classic example is the Church of Satan of ‘Magister Templi’ Marten Lamers [in Amsterdam's Red Light district]. In the late sixties, Lamers established his ‘Satanskerk’ (a sex theater complete with live shows and banana-acts) at the Oudezijds Voorburgwal. To the Tax Department, he maintained for many years that this was not a sex club, but a church that survived only on the ‘donations’ of ‘believers’ and that he therefore was exempted from partnership- and sales tax.
The Tax Department swallowed that story for about 2 decades, but finally woke up in the early eighties. It raided the sex club. The ‘church’ received a demand for 15 million Guilders, and Lamers was convicted for tax fraud.
Scientology in Amsterdam is an almost identical case. The ‘church’ presents itself to the Tax Department and the public at large as a religious movement with no commercial interest whatsoever, but in reality functions as multinational aiming for maximum profits – modern business-jargon included.
The ‘church’ tells its followers that every person is chockfull of ‘engrams’ and ‘thetans’ which severely hamper the ‘Way to Happiness.’ Those who want to get rid of these creatures must follow an endless series of Scientology courses costing tens of thousands of Euros – sometimes even tons [a 'ton' is colloquial Dutch for 100,000 guilders = 45,378.02 EUR = 57,997 USD at time of publication. Check this currency converter for current rates. Note that since the introduction of the Euro, it is not always clear how much money a 'ton' refers to.]
Even just on the basis of those tariffs, Scientology can not be qualified as anything else but a commercial enterprise – more so because new ‘believers’ are recruited on the street.
How has the government, the Ministry of Finance, and the Tax Department in particular reacted to the opening of the Dutch Scientology department? Softly said, variably – perhaps in fear of the government being accused of interfering with the constitutional right to religious freedom. Examples:
• In the early eighties, the Amsterdam Tax Department charged Scientology with a back duty of 10 million Guilders. Scientology appealed, and no one ever heard more about it. It is likely that the Tax Inspector has reduced the bill to next-to-nothing.
• In 1985, the court in The Hague judged in the case of an individual Scientologist that his gifts to the ‘church’ (course fees and donations) could not be deducted from his taxes – something that is allowed with gifts to traditional churches.
• In 1986 the court in Amsterdam determined in a similar case that Scientology must be seen as ‘entrepreneur’ since it fulfills the needs of third parties against payment of a fee.
• However, in 1988 an inspector of the Amsterdam Tax Department let Scientology know in writing that he agreed that the ‘church’ did not operate with an eye toward profit, and therefore would not have tax liability. Scientology likes to fence off challenges with this letter.
• At the beginning of last year, the court ruled that Scientology can (just like regular churches) be considered an organization intending to serve the common good in line with article 47 of the law on Income Tax, and that gifts to the ‘church’ are deductible. Scientology also likes to show off that decision.
• At the end of last year, the Supreme Council [final court of appeals and Supreme Court] nullified that decision. The Council is of the opinion that is has not been determined that Scientology intends to serve the common good. It has forwarded the case to the Court in The Hague.
“I expect that Scientology will lose that case, and to be honest, I hope that is so, because everything it does is – to may taste – simply fraud,” says professor in Fiscal Law, Van Overbeeke.
That fraud can moreover continue for some time. If Scientology indeed loses the procedure at the Court of The Hague nothing prevents it from returning to the court of appeals. After all, it has enough money.