Tuesday, March 4, 2014

European Court Of Human Rights Rules Rules Preston LDS Temple Not Entitled To Same Tax Exemption As Chapels

In the United States, temples of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are customarily awarded the same tax exemptions as chapels. However, this is not necessarily the case elsewhere, and in the United Kingdom, British authorities withdrew the tax exemption awarded to the LDS Church for its temple in Preston. Instead of earning a complete statutory tax exemption, the temple would only qualify for an 80 percent exemption. The Church filed suit with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), claiming this decision violated two articles of the European Convention of Human Rights, and on March 4th, 2013, the ECHR ruled against the LDS Church. Media stories have been published by the Independent and the BBC.

Applicability: Potentially applies to any area under the jurisdiction of the ECHR. Consequently, this could apply to any other LDS temple in the area, which is probably one of the reasons why the Church decided to push it all the way to the ECHR. According to the Telegraph, Malcolm Adcock, UK spokesman for the LDS Church, said "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints respects the decision of the Strasbourg court, and is grateful that the charitable activities of churches are recognized under UK and European law."

Below is a summary of case highlights; the full details are available on the specific case page of the ECHR:

Background: Under the United Kingdom's Local Government Finance Act 1988, a valuation officer must compile and maintain a local rating list for his or her area. Premises included on the list are liable for the payment of business rates. Premises used for charitable purposes are entitled to charity business rates relief, which cuts the amount of rates payable by 80 percent. Places of public religious worship are wholly exempt from the tax.

History: The dispute first arose in 1998. Although the Preston temple was listed as a building used for charitable purpose and therefore retained a liability to pay only 20 percent rates, it was refused the statutory tax exemption reserved for places of public religious worship because the temple is only open to recommend holders rather than the general public. The valuation officer did accept that the stake center on the same site, with its chapel, associated hall and ancillary rooms, was a place of public religious worship accessible to the general public which was entitled to the exemption. Other buildings on the site, for example a building providing accommodation for missionaries and various ancillary buildings were subject to full business rates. For the financial year 1999/2000, the applicant paid a total of GBP 117,360 in respect of all the rateable buildings on its Preston site.

In March 2001, the applicant applied to have the temple removed from the rating list, claiming the benefit of the exemption for places of public religious worship. In October 2004, the Lancashire Valuation Tribunal granted the application for appeal and determined the temple to be exempt under the statutory provision. However, in December 2005, the Lands Tribunal overturned that decision. The applicant’s appeal to the Court of Appeal was dismissed on 24 November 2006. The applicant then appealed to the House of Lords, who in turn dismissed the appeal in July 2008 on the basis that the temple, because of the limited public access, did not qualify as a place of worship. The LDS Church then appealed to the ECHR, claiming that the decision was a violation of Articles 9 and 14 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, alternately referred to as the European Convention of Human Rights.

-- Article 9: (1). Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance. (2). Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

-- Article 14: The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in [the] Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.

The Primary LDS Argument: The LDS Church reasoned that the Preston temple and its curtilage, including the vestry or dressing room, utility rooms, office space used for temple administration and refectory used for dining by temple worshippers, ought to be exempt from business rates. However, it emphasised that its dispute with the Government concerned the principle of the exemption in relation to the temple, rather than its precise extent. The tax provisions at issue resulted in differential treatment. They imposed a tax burden on the applicant’s temple which was not applied to other religious structures. More importantly, they excluded the applicant’s most sacred space and rituals from eligibility for tax exemption, while granting exempt status to the full range of worship for other denominations. Implicit in this differentiation were non-neutral State assumptions, stereotypes and stigmatization that operated prejudicially against the applicant and those if its members who chose to engage in temple worship.

In regards to the lack of general public access, the LDS Church argued that this was not a case of worship being made private for the purposes of being exclusive or to provide private benefit, but it was because the very nature of the worship as understood by its believers required privacy to promote the sacred character of the worship. The relevant analogy would be to insist that the tax exemption be denied to space devoted to confessionals or to the area behind the iconostasis in Orthodox churches. Just as an invitation to the general public to enter these spaces would disrupt sacred practices, so the nature of temple worship would be destroyed if there were a general requirement that the public be able to sit in. It was inappropriate for State officials to engage in drawing lines that discriminated between religions on the basis of mistaken understandings of the nature and impact of religious practices or merely because such practices are different from those of more familiar religions.

The State's Primary Argument: The U.K. Government submitted that, since Article 14 did not confer a free-standing right to non-discrimination, its scope should be kept within boundaries of association closely associated with and directly bearing upon the operation of the other Convention rights. The LDS Church had not identified any concrete link between the scope of the tax exemption and Article 9; the facts of the case were far removed from the core values and concerns which Article 9 sought to protect. It followed that Article 14 did not apply and that the complaint should be declared inadmissible. In addition, the Government did not accept that the applicant had established that it was in any significantly different position in relation to the 1988 Act than any other religious organization. The rule was of general application and concerned only the use made of the building; it did not discriminate on the basis of religious belief. Any of the applicant’s places of worship, such as its chapels and stake centres, that were open to the public, had the benefit of the exemption. Other religious organizations also operated a mixture of private and public places of worship. For example, whilst Church of England churches were usually open to the public, its religious buildings run by closed orders or schools or college chapels might not be. Where such buildings were not open to the public, they were not exempt from rates. There had been no direct discrimination against the applicant Church; the complaint should be characterized as one of indirect discrimination. This was a concept that the Court had recognized as being covered by Article 14 only relatively recently, and it should be cautious not to extend the breadth of Article 14 too far in developing this new principle. It was for the applicant to produce prima facie evidence that the effect of a measure or practice was discriminatory, whereupon the burden of proof would shift to the Government to justify the measure. The ill-defined difference of treatment complained of in the present case did not, in the Government’s submission, cross this threshold.

The Court's Judgment: The Court rejected the LDS Church's appeal because there was no evidence submitted that suggested the LDS Church was treated any differently than any other religious organization under the same circumstances. Two of thje judges also noted that the tax exemption was a privilege rather than a right, and that the application of this privilege did not interfere with the exercise of the right to freedom of religion, concluding that the facts of the case did not fall within the ambit of Article 9.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I believe the church will see more and more of this type of thing in other countries, especially since there is now so much opposition to the church, and the opposition is increasing.