The Mormon Church has failed in its long-running campaign to show that the refusal of a full business rates exemption for its temple in Preston, Lancashire, amounted to unlawful discrimination and a violation of its human right to freedom of religion.
The Church – properly the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints – has 180,000 adherents living in the UK and Ireland who consider the temple one of the holiest places on Earth. However, ceremonies held there can only be attended by the most devout Mormons who are considered appropriately worthy.
The temple has long been the beneficiary of an 80 per cent business rates exemption as a building used for charitable purposes. However, a 100 per cent exemption was refused on the basis that, due to its restricted congregation, it is not used for ‘public religious worship’ within the meaning of the Local Government Finance Act 1988.
The Church challenged that decision through the domestic legal system all the way up to the House of Lords, which dismissed its appeal in July 2008 on the basis that the temple was not open to the general public and that the legislative regime did not affect the freedom of Mormons to manifest their religious beliefs.
Before the European Court of Human Rights, the Church’s lawyers argued that the temple is viewed by believers as their ‘most sacred centre’ and that it is used as a place of congregational religious worship. The requirement of public access meant that the Church was subjected to a discriminatory fiscal disadvantage by reason of its doctrine that only its most devout members are afforded access to the temple.
However, in rejecting those arguments, the Court found that there was no difference in treatment between Mormons and comparable groups. Noting that private chapels maintained by the Church of England also do not benefit from 100 per cent exemption from business rates, the Court also ruled that the statutory requirement was reasonably and objectively justified. The public access requirement did not go to the legitimacy of Mormon beliefs, and other centres run by the Church, which are open to all comers, had been granted a complete rates exemption.