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'Church' rates bid is rejected

Title: 'Church' rates bid is rejected
Date: Monday, 24 January 2011
Publisher: Sunderland Echo (UK)
Main source:

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CIVIC chiefs have rejected a petition calling for the Church of Scientology to be forced to pay full business rates.

More than 300 Wearsiders signed a motion urging Sunderland Council to withdraw relief given to the international organisation – whose followers include Tom Cruise and John Travolta – for its property in Fawcett Street.

The decision to accept the organisation’s application, backdated to 2006, has so far saved it more than £30,000 – despite not being classed as either a religion or charity under UK law.

The petition, handed in by Tory group leader and Barnes councillor Tony Morrissey, labelled the decision “unfair and unacceptable,” saying struggling businesses still had to pay rates, and could not afford to operate from such a prime location.

In the council’s response, executive director of commercial and corporate services Malcolm Page said the decision, which took four years to make, was based on a judgement as to whether the organisation is established for charitable purposes, and not on its status as a registered charity.”

He said the authority considered published guidance, case law, legal advice and visited the property.

Also, that the Church of Scientology “provided the council with persuasive evidence to demonstrate its assertion that it is an organisation established for charitable purposes, and that its use of the premises in Fawcett Street benefited sections of the public in Sunderland”.

The details are revealed in a report to be present at Wednesday’s full council meeting.

Coun Morrissey said the issue “merits further investigation,” and that he would press the council for details of exactly how the organisation provides a charitable benefit to the city.

There has been criticism from Government of granting rates relief to the Church of Scientology, amid confusion nationally as some authorities approved it while others refused – all claiming to have considered Charity Commission guidelines.

Manchester City Council did not accept a Scientology property in its area was a religious premises, or established for the moral and spiritual improvement of the community.

Birmingham City Council this week announced it was reviewing an 80 per cent reduction it offered the organisation.

The confusion was alluded to by Sunderland Council in its response to the petition.

Mr Page said: “It is clear that classification is required from Government on the current regulations, and legislative change may be required to prevent non-registered charities from benefiting from the relief, if that is its intended policy.”

The Church of Scientology has previously said: “Local council authorities, government bodies in this country and many others, and the European Court of Human Rights have all recognised the religious nature of Scientology, or the fact that Scientologists are actively helping those in their communities as a direct reflection of their religious beliefs.”