In England, can you call Scientology a cult?

May 23, 2008 update: Schoolboy avoids prosecution for branding Scientology a cult

A teenager who was facing legal action for calling the Church of Scientology a “cult” has today been told he will not be taken to court.

The Crown Prosecution Service ruled the word was neither “abusive or insulting” to the church and no further action would be taken against the boy.
– Source: The Guardian, May 23, 2008

In England, can you call Scientology a cult?

A teenager in England faces prosecution for the wording of a sign he carried while protesting the Scientology cult during the most recent Anonymous demonstration.

His sign read: “Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult.”

Within five minutes of arriving, the teenager was approached by a female police officer and told he was not allowed to use the word “cult” to describe Scientology, and that the Inspector in charge would make a decision. Soon afterwards officers again approached, read Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 and handed him this notice.

The Act makes it an offence to display “any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby”.

In response, the teenager quoted back a High Court judgement from 1984. Justice Latey repeatedly said in a family division case that Scientology was a “cult” – one that was “immoral”, “socially obnoxious”, “corrupt”, “sinister” and “dangerous”. The full judgement is here.

The City of London police again approached the protestor 30 minutes later to serve notice of a court summons, and to confiscate the sign.
– Source: Teen battles City of London cops over anti-Scientology placard, The Register, May 20, 2008

The London demonstration: The fourth consecutive monthly global Anonymous protest against the Church of Scientology. Focused on the policy of ‘Fair Game’ and its use against critics of Scientology.

The unnamed youth was served the summons by City of London police when he took part in a peaceful demonstration opposite the headquarters of the controversial religion in London.

Officers confiscated a placard with the word “cult” on it from the youth, who is under 18, and a case file has been sent to the Crown Prosecution Service.

A date has not yet been set for him to appear in court.

The decision to issue the summons has angered human rights activists and support groups for the victims of cults.
– Source: Teenager faces prosecution for calling Scientology ‘cult’, The Guardian, UK, May 20, 2008

“Religiously aggravated crime”

A later report in the same publication added some details:

A spokeswoman for the force said today: “City of London police had received complaints about demonstrators using the words ‘cult’ and ‘Scientology kills’ during protests against the Church of Scientology.

“Following advice from the Crown Prosecution Service some demonstrators were warned verbally and in writing that their signs breached section five of the Public Order Act.

“One demonstrator continued to display a placard despite police warnings and was reported for an offence under section five. A file on the case will go to the CPS.”

A CPS spokesman said no specific advice was given to police regarding the boy’s placard.

“In April, prior to this demonstration, as part of our normal working relationship we gave the City of London police general advice on the law around demonstrations and religiously aggravated crime in particular.

“We did not advise on this specific case prior to the summons being issued — which the police can do without reference to us — but if we receive a file we will review it in the normal way according to the code for crown prosecutors.”
– Source: Teenager faces prosecution for calling Scientology ‘cult’, The Guardian, UK, May 20, 2008, 2:30 BST update

Public Order Act

Section 5 of the Public Order Act reads in part:
(1) A person is guilty of an offence if he:

(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
(b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,
within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.

– Source: Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, Wikipedia

The Crown Prosecution Service’s “Racially and Religiously Aggravated Crime” information is posted here.

UK government: Scientology is not a religion

However, it should be noted that the UK government does not classify the Church of Scientology as a religious institution:

The UK government does not classify the Church of Scientology as a religious institution.[68] The Church’s application for charity status in England and Wales was rejected in 1999,[69] and the Church has not exercised its right of appeal.[68] However, in 2000, the Church of Scientology was exempted from UK value added tax on the basis that it is a not-for-profit body.[70] The Ministry of Defence has confirmed that Scientology is “an officially recognised religion in the Royal Navy”.[69] The UK Prison Service does not recognize Scientology as a religion, but prisoners who are registered as Scientologists may practice their religion and are given access to a representative of the Church of Scientology if they wish to receive its ministry.[68]

The UK government has heavily criticized the Church in the past, as documented in 1971 in the Foster Report, but places no restrictions upon its activities.
– Source: Scientology as a state-recognized religion, Wikipedia, last accessed Mar. 9, 2009, 11:39 CET

Scientology reaches out to London police officers

An up-hill battle

We think that if Britain’s Crown Prosecution Services wants to make it a crime for someone to refer to Scientology as a ‘cult’ it will face an uphill battle. In the process, the Scientology cult will be subjected to much scrutiny and — as a result — ridicule. After all, newspapers, websites, blogs, academics, lawyers… you name it, will all be looking at whether or not the term ‘cult’ can properly be applied to the Church of Scientology.

In our opinion, the Church of Scientology can and should most certainly be called a cult — in the full sociological sense of the word.

In 1991, TIME Magazine carried a front page article on Scientology, titled, “The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power.” The cult acted predictably — harassing the reporter and abusing the legal system. Ten years later the cult lost big when the US Supreme Court refused to reinstate Scientology’s libel case against the magazine.

Since then, Scientology has introduced some cosmetic changes, largely consisting of PR efforts designed to try and make the cult more palatable to those not well-informed about its true nature.

Scientology’s status as a religious cult is well documented.

Apologetics Index, the website behind Religion News Blog, carries a collection of research resources on Scientology.

Checklist of Cult Characteristics

The “Scientology Kills” website carries a handy Checklist of Cult Characteristics, compiled by Dr. Michael Langone of the International Cultic Studies Association.

Meanwhile, the Church of Scientology has long claimed that it is compatible with Christianity. Nothing could be further from the truth. See: Is Scientology compatible with Christianity?

As the folks at Got Questions? conclude in their article, Is Scientology Christian or a cult?“There is nothing to gain by associating with scientology and everything to lose.”

• Quoted material excepted, opinions express are those of Anton Hein

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday May 21, 2008.
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