Officers banned the placards during a demonstration against the self-styled church in Glasgow city centre last weekend. Civil liberties campaigners have warned a dangerous precedent is being set for the suppression of free speech.
Strathclyde Police’s intervention follows a similar incident in London last month when a youth was left facing prosecution. The 15-year-old had refused to remove a sign stating “Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult”.
Human rights lawyer John Scott claimed the episodes suggested the church was receiving preferential treatment.
He said: “Scientology is a wealthy organisation with pretty influential people involved. But that doesn’t mean it’s entitled to any more protection from the police – though it does appear that is the reality of the situation.
“This latest incident sets a dangerous precedent and I hope the police do not have to be taken to court for them to accept the right of free speech.”
Last Saturday’s demonstration was organised by Anonymous, an anti-Scientology group. Its members protest where the church is holding public sessions.
Strathclyde Police admitted officers had stopped activists using the word “cult” after receiving a complaint.
A spokeswoman said: “The word is not a breach of the peace in itself. However, in this case it was exacerbating the situation and our stance was that we had to remove that.
“From a policing point of view, a balance has to be struck between the right to assemble and hold a meeting and other persons’ rights to go about their business or demonstrate without being obstructed or hindered.”
Last night, Anonymous – a leaderless, internet-based group – said it had recovered the banners and would be launching a fight to use the word.
A spokesman said: “The police have told us that breach of peace is very open to interpretation and there are no Scottish test cases they can refer to.
“We’re furious that we’re being told we cannot use the word cult’ – we’ve got rulings from London, Germany, France saying this is exactly what Scientology is.
“No-one wants to get arrested – our members just want to protest.”
A 15-year-old was served a court summons by police in London on May 10 for refusing to take down a placard labelling Scientology a “dangerous cult”.
The Crown Prosecution Service later decided there was no case to answer.
Despite several requests, no-one from the church was available for comment.