The Italian Supreme Court Decision on Scientology

(October 8, 1997)

On October 8, 1997 the Italian Court of Cassation (the Supreme Court for jurisdictional purposes in Italy) rendered an important decision on Scientology. We offer a summary of the decision -- extremely important for the ongoing debate on the nature and definition of religion -- without entering here into the specific discussion about Scientology. You may also read a full copy (in Italian) of the 48-pages decision.

While some Italian courts (including Rome and Turin) have considered Scientology as a religion, a different conclusion was reached by the Court of Appeal of Milan. Reforming a first degree decision favourable to Scientology, on November 5, 1993 the Milan appeal judges found a number of Scientologists guilty of a variety of crimes, all allegedly committed before 1981, ignoring the question whether Scientology was a religion. The Italian Supreme Court, on February 9, 1995, annulled the Milan 1993 decision with remand, asking the Court of Appeal to reconsider whether Scientology was indeed a religion. On December 2, 1996 the Court of Appeal of Milan complied, but maintained that Scientology was not a religion. Not unlike their Turin homologues, the Milan appeal judges noted that "there is no legislative definition of religion" and "nowhere in the [Italian] law there is any useful element in order to distinguish a religious organization from other social groups". However, among a number of possible definitions, the Milan judges selected one defining religion as "a system of doctrines centered on the presupposition of the existence of a Supreme Being, who has a relation with humans, the latter having towards him a duty of obedience and reverence". Additional criteria based on the case law of the Italian Constitutional Court are considered, but these are clearly ancillary to the main definition. Theoretically, the reference to a "Supreme Being" may be interpreted in a non-theistic sense. This was the interpretation in the case law of the U.S. Supreme Court interpreting the Universal Military Training and Service Act of 1948, also including in its definition of religion a reference to "a relation to a Supreme Being". The Milan judges, however, interpreted "Supreme Being" in a theistic sense. As a consequence, they could easily exclude the non-theistic worldview of Scientology from the sphere of religion.

On October 9, 1997 the Supreme Court annulled also the Milan 1996 decision, again with remand (meaning that another section of the Court of Appeal of Milan shall re-examine the facts of the case). The Supreme Court regarded the Milan theistic definition of religion as "unacceptable" and "a mistake", because it was "based only on the paradigm of Biblical religions". As such, the definition would exclude Buddhism, whose main Italian organization, the Italian Buddhist Union, has been recognized in Italy as a "religious denomination" since 1991. Buddhism, according to the Supreme Court, "certainly does not affirm the existence of a Supreme Being and, as a consequence, does not propose a direct relation of the human being with Him".

It is true, the Supreme Court observes, that "the self-definition of a group as religious is not enough in order to recognize it as a genuine religion". The Milan 1996 decision quoted the case law of the Italian Constitutional Court and its reference to the "common opinion" in order to decide whether a group is a religion. The relevant "common opinion", however, according to the Supreme Court is rather "the opinion of the scholars" than the "public opinion". The latter is normally hostile to religious minorities and, additionally, difficult to ascertain: one wonders, the Supreme Court notes, "from what source the Milan judges knew the public opinion of the whole national community". On other hand, most scholars -- according to the Supreme Court -- seem to prefer a definition of religion broad enough to include Scientology and, when asked, conclude that Scientology is in fact a religion, having as its aim "the liberation of the human spirit through the knowledge of the divine spirit residing within each human being". The 48-pages decision of the Supreme Court also examined some of the arguments used by critics (and by the Milan 1996 judges) in order to deny to Scientology the status of religion. Five main arguments were discussed.

1. First, critics object that Scientology is "syncretistic" and does not propose any really "original belief". This is, the Supreme Court argues, irrelevant, since syncretism "is not rare" among genuine religions, and many recently established Christian denominations exhibit very few "original features" when compared to older denominations.

2. Second, it is argued that Scientology is presented to perspective converts as science, not as religion. The Supreme Court replies that, at least since Thomas Aquinas, Christian theology claims to be a science. On the other hand, science claiming to lead to non-empirical results such as "a knowledge of God" (or "of human beings as gods") may be both "bad science" and "inherently religious".

3. Third, critics make reference to ex-members (mostly militant apostates such as "Atack and Armstrong", quoted in the Milan 1996 decision) who claim that Scientology is not a religion but only a facade to hide criminal activities. The Supreme Court asks how we may know that the opinion of disgruntled ex-members is representative of the larger population of ex-members. Other ex-members have in fact appeared as witnesses for the defense, and at any rate, the number of ex-members of Scientology appears to be quite large. The opinion of two and even twenty of them, thus, is hardly representative of what the average ex-member believes.

4. Fourth, texts by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, and by early Italian leaders seem to imply that Scientology's basic aim is to make money. Such texts' interest in money is, according to the Supreme Court, "excessive" but "perhaps appears much less excessive if we consider how money was raised in the past by the Roman Catholic Church". The Supreme Court quotes Ananias and Sapphira in the Acts of the Apostles (who died because they kept for personal use a part of what they obtained from the sale of their property and lied to the bishop, rather than giving everything to him), late Medieval controversies about the sale of indulgences, and the fact that until very recently Italian Catholic churches used to affix at the church's door "a list of services offered [Masses and similar] with the corresponding costs". The latter comments, according to the Supreme Court, confirm that quid pro quo services are more widespread among religions that the Milan 1996 judges seemed to believe. Concerning Scientology, the Supreme Court went on to observe that the more "disturbing" texts on money are but a minimal part of Hubbard's enormous literary production (including "about 8,000 works"); and that they were mostly circular letters or bulletins intended "for the officers in charge of finances and the economic structure, not for the average member". Finally, even if one should take at face value the "crude" comment included in a technical bulletin of Scientology (not written by Hubbard) that "the only reason why LRH [L. Ron Hubbard] established the Church was in order to sell and deliver Dianetics and Scientology", this would not mean, according to the Supreme Court, that Scientology is not a religion. What is, in fact, the ultimate aim of "selling Dianetics and Scientology"? There is no evidence, the Supreme Court suggests, that such "sales" are only organized in order to assure the personal welfare of the leaders. If they are intended as a proselytization tool, then making money is only an intermediate aim. The ultimate aim is "proselytization", and this aim "could hardly be more typical of a religion", even if "according to the strategy of the founder [Hubbard], new converts are sought and organized through the sale and delivery of Dianetics and Scientology" .

5. A fifth objection discussed by the Supreme Court is that Scientology is not a religion since there is evidence, in the Milan case itself, that a number of Scientologists were guilty of "fraudulent sales techniques" or abused of particularly weak customers, when "selling" Dianetics or Scientology. These illegal activities, the Supreme Court comments, should be prosecuted, but there is no evidence that they are more than "occasional deviant activities" of a certain number of leaders and members within the Milan branch, "with no general significance" concerning the nature of Scientology in general .

The Italian Supreme Court 1997 decision on Scientology includes one of the most important discussions -- so far and at an international scale -- of how courts may apply existing laws apparently requiring them to decide whether a specific group is, or is not, a religion. It argues that the non-existence of a legal definition of religion in Italy (and elsewhere) "is not coincidential". Any definition would rapidly become obsolete and, in fact, limit religious liberty. It is much better, according to the Italian Supreme Court, "not to limit with a definition, always by its very nature restrictive, the broader field of religious liberty". "Religion" is an ever-evolving concept, and courts may only interpret it within the frame of a specific historical and geographical context, taking into account the opinions of the scholars .

It remains to be seen whether this 1997 opinion of the Italian Supreme Court -- that it is better not to have a legal definition in order to allow a broader religious liberty -- will be shared by other courts. The Italian decision is, at any rate, an interesting addition to an ongoing international discussion.

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