Five supreme court justices have spent a day wrestling with notions of God, nirvana and what constitutes worship in an attempt to decide whether Scientologists may conduct weddings.
In one of the more curious appeals to come before the UK's highest court, senior lawyers – wearing puzzled expressions, and bemused smiles but no wigs – ranged across centuries of legislation and a number of faiths to try to establish what religion is.
The case has been brought by Louisa Hodkin, who wishes to marry her fiance, Alessandro Calcioli, in the Church of Scientology's building on Queen Victoria Street in the City of London.
The registrar-general of births, deaths and marriages has declined to license the Scientologists' "chapel" as a place of meeting for religious worship under section two of the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855. Hodkin and her partner, who are volunteers at the Church of Scientology, claim the refusal is discriminatory. At a previous hearing, the court of appeal rejected their application.
Wigs and gowns are rarely worn in the supreme court in Westminster these days. On Thursday, the air of intellectual informality was enhanced by the eccentricity of the issues. On one hand was James Strachan QC, for the registrar-general. Scientology, he told the court, was initially founded by the American writer L Ron Hubbard as "dianetics" – a process of self-discovery. Scientology did not describe itself as a religion until 1951. Its eighth level of perfection, Strachan said, was a state of "infinity". "The process of Scientology is not about worshipping God, infinity or a supreme being," he said. "It's about auditing, training and developing self-awareness. The judge [in the courts below] had difficulty in understanding whether it might be a theistic religion."
Strachan, however, insisted Scientology did not qualify as religion: "It does not involve worship of a divine being. The central processes of Scientology are not about reverence or veneration. It's about constructing the self."
Scientologists do refer to a "creed" and "sermons", he conceded, "but it's not religious worship. If the registrar-general has wrongly registered Buddhists or Jains [other faiths that do not worship gods] then they should be de-registered. The argument that it's discrimination [against Scientology] goes nowhere."
Against him was Lord Lester, the veteran Liberal Democrat peer, who pointed out that the Church of Scientology already enjoys "charitable rates relief" on its London headquarters worth £300,000 a year.
Scientology was akin to Buddhism, he implied. "[The Buddhist principle of] nirvana is not venerated as a being or power that is supernatural or divine. In Scientology, L Rob Hubbard is not venerated."
In other jurisdictions, such as Australia, Scientology has been accepted as a religious denomination. The refusal to register the chapel was religious discrimination, Lord Lester insisted.
The five supreme court justices – Lord Neuberger, Lord Clarke, Lord Wilson, Lord Reed and Lord Toulson – brought in Islam, Unitarianism, Quakerism and other faiths to develop comparisons.
"A Quaker service often consists only of silent meditation," one justice observed.
The appeal is of wider significance since Scientologists have applied for certification at other premises in England that they claim are used for religious worship.
Speaking after an earlier judgment, Hodkin said: "I hope the court allows me to marry in my own church, surrounded by my family and friends, which means everything to me."
The court has reserved judgment. At the end of the hearing, Lord Lester tried a note of religious reconciliation: "Nirvana," he explained, "is a state which an individual attains, the state your lordships attain quite often at the end of a case."