Scientology: Judges narrow focus in court fight
BERLIN (AP) _ Federal judges considering Germany’s fight with Scientology signaled today that they would not decide the central question of whether the Los Angeles-based church is a religion or a business.
The Church of Scientology claims widespread discrimination against its members in Germany, and had hoped for a ruling that would give it legal grounds to challenge the treatment of followers.
Scientologists went to court after the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg revoked the non-profit status of a local branch in Stuttgart in 1986. The state said the group was primarily concerned with making money by selling books and self-improvement courses, not the ``idealistic goals″ generally associated with a non-profit organization.
A Stuttgart court upheld the revocation, but a regional court overturned the ruling, saying it first must be determined whether Scientology is a religion and thus entitled to special privileges, such as tax-exempt status and the right to recruit members.
The state appealed to the federal court in Berlin, raising expectations that the court might rule on Scientology’s status. But presiding Judge Werner Meyer noted today that the court was charged only with deciding whether Scientology’s status makes a difference in revoking the registration _ not gathering new facts.
If it agrees with the regional court that Scientology’s status is relevant, the case probably would have to be sent back to the local court for retrial. A ruling is expected Nov. 6.
The German government has taken steps to outlaw the Church of Scientology. The group says its members suffer from officially sanctioned discrimination that includes bans on its members from joining political parties and the surveillance of the group as a threat to democracy, a step toward seeking an official ban.
State attorney Michael Quaas argued in court today that Scientology’s sole purpose was making money, and that local groups were directed from Los Angeles to pursue this goal.
Scientology members are considered a ``long-term economic relationship″ because they must keep taking new courses _ for a fee. ``Ideas are only given for cash,″ he said.
Scientology lawyer Wilhelm Bluemel argued, however, that every church needs money to provide services and is permitted to seek contributions from its members.
Other legal associations are allowed to earn money, such as soccer and auto clubs, ``but they go after a little religion with the full force of the law.″ He said the state was solely concerned with ``fighting the Scientology movement.″
The dispute between Germany and the church is muddy; the Germans give little specific evidence for their claims against the church. But the crux of the problem seems to be Scientologist’s secretive and hierarchical structure, which German critics say follows a totalitarian model.
For its part, Scientology often has compared its treatment in Germany to Nazi isolation of the Jews in the years leading up to the Holocaust.
Scientologists have fought other battles over whether it is a legitimate religion or a commercial operation. Only after a 25-year campaign did Scientology, founded by L. Ron Hubbard, win U.S. tax-free status as a religion in 1993.
Scientology’s adherents worldwide include many celebrities. American actress Anne Archer attended a Berlin demonstration Monday by thousands of Scientologists demanding equal rights in Germany and a bill on religious freedom. Organizers also read a statement from actor John Travolta, busy at work on a film in Hollywood.