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In Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v the UK, the ECtHR discussed ‘place of public religious worship’ within the context of a UK tax dispute. For the Church (aka the Mormons) to receive favourable (local) tax treatment for the real estate part of their portfolio, their places of worship had to be ‘public’ – while for doctrinal reasons at least part of the Church buildings must not be public. The House of Lords had already held previously (2008, 1964)in related cases.
The purpose of the UK exemption is to benefit religious buildings which provided a ‘service to the general public’. The same regime applies to all religions and the Church of England, for instance, likewise sees part of its churches, in particular its private Chapels, not exempt.
The ECtHR held that the policy of exempting from rates buildings used for public religious worship fell within the State’s margin of appreciation under Articles 14 and 9 taken together. The legislation is neutral, in that it is the same for all religious groups as regards the manifestation of religious beliefs in private; and indeed produces exactly the same negative consequences for the officially established Christian Church in England (the Church of England) as far as private chapels are concerned. Moreover, the remaining liability to rates is relatively low, in monetary terms.
The finding under Article 9 also led to rejection of the arguments under Article 1 of the first protocol) protection of property). On the facts of this case, the Court considered that the margin of appreciation to be afforded to the State in respect of those provisions would be similar to, if not more generous than, that afforded under Article 14 taken in conjunction with Article 9.
The case arguably is a further, fairly uncontroversial, step in the Court’s case-law on freedom of religious beliefs and ditto expression. The real tests will lie in challenges to bans on religious slaughter (schechita and halal; where European secondary law and international and European economic law have far the more immediate impact) and of course in bans on male circumcision.