Mormon Temple in Preston, England

Mormon Temple in Preston, England Fetler at English Wikipedia

A friend of mine who practices First Amendment law is not happy that the European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday upheld a British refusal to permit the Mormon Temple in Preston tax-free status as a place of public worship. “It’s another indication  of how equality is overriding religious liberty,” he emailed.

Here’s the deal. Tax law in England affords 100 percent tax relief to religious institutions that allow for public worship. But the LDS Church restricts entrance to its temples to members of the church in sufficiently good standing to possess “recommends” from their bishops. So, relying on a 1964 precedent, the Law Lords decided in 2008 that since the Preston temple restricts access in this way, it is only entitled to the 80 percent tax reduction given to all charitable institutions. (Let it be noted that those Mormon facilities open to the public at large get the 100 percent reduction.)

Writing for a three-judge majority, Lord Hoffmann declared, “Parliament must have a wide discretion in deciding what should be regarded as a sufficient public benefit to justify exemption from taxation and in my opinion it was entitled to take the view that public access to religious services was such a benefit.”

In a concurring opinion, Lord Scott of Foscote waxed philosophical:

Religion can bind communities together; but it can also emphasise their differences. In these circumstances secrecy in religious practices provides the soil in which suspicions and unfounded prejudices can take root and grow; openness in religious practices, on the other hand, can dispel suspicions and contradict prejudices. I can see every reason why a state should adopt a general policy under which fiscal relief for premises used for religious worship is available where the premises are open to the general public and is withheld where they are not.

The LDS Church thereupon took the case to the human rights court, which has now determined that “such difference of treatment had a reasonable and objective justification” and thus not in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.

I can’t imagine the U.S. Supreme Court handing down a decision like this, and I don’t think most Americans would want it to. To tax only those religious institutions that restrict entry to insiders — monks in a monastery, say — violates our understanding of what the free exercise of religion is all about.

It does, however, strike me that the European approach has less to do with equality — i.e. non-discrimination — than with an establishmentarian religious tradition that regards houses of worship as places of public rather than private or communal accommodation. Regardless, it’s a reminder that even among those committed to the principle of religious freedom, there’s considerable disagreement about exactly what it means.

Categories: Institutions

Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


  1. I’m not sure monks in a monastery is a good comparison. While their living areas are usually not open to the public, every monastery I’ve ever visited has a chapel that is open to the public. Masses at monasteries are open for people to participate in and I’ve joined monks and nuns for the Liturgy of the Hours even if they were off to the side and not visible in some cases. So they are not restricting public worship in quite the same way as a LDS temple.

    • I completely agree with ElizabethK2. The monastic communities have long traditions of welcoming and including the public. Mormon temples are completely segregated from the general public, even from other Mormons who don’t hold “recommends” (which can only be obtained by paying the Mormon tithe, or tax, which itself is ironic in this regard). All tax exemptions are gratuitous – the default is that everyone pays taxes – and largely the result of governments determining that certain institutions provide offsetting benefits that entitle them to relief from taxation. This has nothing to do with a failure of understanding differences in religious traditions and everything to do with a tax system reasonably concluding that Mormon temples do not qualify for full exemption under generally applicable principles of exemption. That they aren’t equally subject to taxation here is the result of the failure of political courage by our taxing authorities.

      • Tithing is only one element of getting a temple recommend. It’s not a tax, it’s a gift, of sorts. It’s giving back to God a small portion of what God gives to us, which is everything. A big reason why it’s necessary to pay an honest tithe to receive a temple recommend is because we must follow God in everything, if we expect to get all the blessings He wants to give us. If we don’t want to do this, then we can’t expect to be able to make all the covenants in the temple that we do.

        • Except we don’t really give our tithes to God… we give them to those who lead or administrate the community to which we belong.. and they decide what “God” wants done with the tithe money.

          Remember the joke: A 4th grader observed his parish priest collecting the proceeds of the Sunday Collection. “What are you going to do with all that money,” he asked. “Well, its not my money, it’s God’s,” answered the priest. “Well then, how does God get His money?” continued the young boy. “Oh that’s an easy one,” said the priest. “I just throw the money up in the air and whatever God catches He can keep!’

        • Lynne Newington

          And anything else on the side goes into the pocket…..
          Ever noticed the little slit under the arm and out of sight of a friars garmet?

          • A. We don’t have friars in our church.

            B. Our church always has at least two people working on contributions, so that this sort of thing can’t happen.

  2. samuel Johnston

    The Masons also have temples and restrict access. While they are not restrictive as to the member’s religion as such, they do require belief in monotheism, and that is customarily the God of Abraham. FWIW, modern Masonry is generally considered to have been founded in England in 1712. I have no idea if they have tax exemption in England.

  3. Anyone can go in the temple just like anyone can become a public university or try to become a navy seal–but it takes time, desire and commitment to do those things. Any nonprofit organization has the right to have entrance requirements.

    • In other words, its not open to the general public, in an unconditional manner, where anyone can walk in during normal operational hours. Like every church in the UK which receives tax exemption.

      Thank you for confirming what the UK courts already determined.

  4. For those of you who are looking for some deeper connection I can strongly recommend an fantastic event with speakers, musicians and aligned spiritual workers coming from different countries celebrating Light and perfect Balance at Equinox this coming September in California…

    The Equinox is the marker of the Merging, of the balance between Spirit and Matter, between Light and Shadow, between the Masculine and feminine energies. The Elders considered the Fall Equinox as one of the holiest moments of the years. Later and until recently, the Christian Churches have celebrated the Michaelmas on this day. Fall is associated with the Archangel Michael because He is the agent, the catalytic energy of the Merging, of the Alchemical marriage.

    Enjoy your Sunday!
    With Love

  5. samuel Johnston

    Hi Patrik,
    I once had breakfast with a mathematician (college instructor) who was also an Episcopalian and attended the same church that I once had. I asked him if he believed the literal claims of the Church (virgin birth, etc.). He quickly said “Oh no, I realize that it is all symbolic.”
    I asked what it was symbolic of? He was surprised at the question and had no answer. We all love a good story, but it is not necessary to give it the same weight as we do physical proofs. Symbols and ceremonies are akin to poetry, except it tends to become fraud quickly, as everything becomes. as you say, “holy” ( not subject to the ordinary rules of judgment).

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