Cases nos. 76836/01 and 32782/03
82. The Court must first determine whether there was an interference with the applicants' rights to freedom of religion and association. It observes that, after complex and lengthy proceedings, the domestic courts upheld at final instance the decisions of the registration authorities by which the Surgut and Nizhnekamsk Churches of Scientology had been refused registration as “religious organisations” within the meaning of the Russian Religions Act.
83. The Government maintained that there had been no interference with the applicants' rights because the first and second applicants had been able to join together for religious purposes in a different organisational form, that of a “religious group”, in which the third applicant existed and for which no approval or registration was required.
84. The Court notes that the refusal of registration as a “religious organisation” had the effect of denying legal personality to the Church of Scientology of Surgut, of which the first applicant was the president, and the Church of Scientology of Nizhnekamsk, which had been co-founded by the second applicant and which is also an applicant in the present case. It has been the Court's settled case-law that the ability to establish a legal entity in order to act collectively in a field of mutual interest is one of the most important aspects of freedom of association, without which that right would be deprived of any meaning. A refusal by the domestic authorities to grant legal-entity status to an association, religious or otherwise, of individuals amounts to an interference with the exercise of the right to freedom of association (see Gorzelik and Others v. Poland [GC], no. 44158/98, § 52 et passim, ECHR 2004-I, and Sidiropoulos and Others, cited above, § 31 et passim). The Court has previously accepted that the authorities' refusal to register a group directly affects both the group itself and also its presidents, founders or individual members (see The United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden and Others v. Bulgaria, no. 59491/00, § 53, 19 January 2006; Partidul Comunistilor (Nepeceristi) and Ungureanu v. Romania, no. 46626/99, § 27, 3 February 2005; APEH Üldözötteinek Szövetsége and Others v. Hungary (dec.), no. 32367/96, 31 August 1999). Where the organisation of a religious community was at issue, a refusal to recognise it as a legal entity has also been found to constitute interference with the right to freedom of religion under Article 9 of the Convention, as exercised by both the community itself and its individual members (see Religionsgemeinschaft der Zeugen Jehovas and Others, §§ 79-80, and Metropolitan Church of Bessarabia and Others, § 105, both cited above).
85. Secondly, as regards the Government's claim that the status of a “religious group” was an acceptable substitute for legal recognition, the Court observes that a religious group without legal personality cannot possess or exercise the rights associated with legal-entity status, such as the rights to own or rent property, to maintain bank accounts, to hire employees, and to ensure judicial protection of the community, its members and its assets (see paragraph 54 above). The Court, however, has consistently maintained the view that these rights are essential for exercising the right to manifest one's religion (see Religionsgemeinschaft der Zeugen Jehovas and Others, § 66 in fine, and Metropolitan Church of Bessarabia and Others, § 118, both cited above, and also Koretskyy and Others v. Ukraine, no. 40269/02, § 40, 3 April 2008; and Canea Catholic Church v. Greece, 16 December 1997, §§ 30 and 40-41, Reports 1997‑VIII).
86. Moreover, in addition to the above-mentioned rights normally associated with legal-entity status, the Religions Act reserved a panoply of rights to registered “religious organisations” and explicitly excluded the possibility of such rights being exercised by either religious groups or non-religious legal entities (see paragraphs 54 and 55 above). The exclusive rights of religious organisations included, in particular, such fundamental aspects of religious functions as the right to establish places of worship, the right to hold religious services in places accessible to the public, the right to produce, obtain and distribute religious literature, the right to create educational institutions, and the right to maintain contacts for international exchanges and conferences. As noted above, religious groups or non-religious legal entities may not exercise any of these rights. In these circumstances, the Court considers that the declared rights of religious groups to perform services of worship, to teach religion and to guide their followers (see paragraph 52 above) are merely nominal, for their exercise in practice would be severely curtailed or even made impossible without the specific rights which the Religions Act reserved to registered religious organisations. Indeed, it is hardly conceivable that a religious group would be able to teach religion and guide its followers if the law denied it the possibility to acquire or distribute religious literature. Likewise, the right to perform services of worship would be devoid of substance so long as a non-registered religious group could not establish or maintain places of worship. Accordingly, the Court finds that the restricted status afforded to “religious groups” under the Religions Act did not allow members of such a group to enjoy effectively their right to freedom of religion, rendering such a right illusory and theoretical rather than practical and effective, as required by the Convention (see Hasan and Chaush, cited above, § 62, and Artico v. Italy, 13 May 1980, § 33, Series A no. 37).
87. The view that the restricted status of religious groups under the Religions Act does not confer on these groups a set of rights of sufficient scope for carrying out important religious functions has been also expressed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the Russian Ombudsman (see, in particular, the documents cited in paragraphs 63, 67 and 68 above). Furthermore, in domestic litigation, where a decision refusing legal-entity status to a religious community was contested, the Russian courts have also accepted that without legal personality, a religious group cannot enjoy the “collective rights that citizens exercise in community with others” (see the judgment of the Chelyabinsk Regional Court cited in paragraph 62 above).
88. The Court has thus established that the applicants were unable to obtain recognition and effective enjoyment of their rights to freedom of religion and association in any organisational form. The first applicant could not obtain registration of the Scientology group as a non-religious legal entity because it was considered to be a religious community by the Russian authorities. The applications for registration as a religious organisation submitted by the first and second applicants as founders of their respective groups and also on behalf of the third applicant were denied by reference to the insufficient period of the groups' existence. Finally, the restricted status of a religious group for which they qualified and in which the third applicant existed conveyed no practical or effective benefits to them as such a group was deprived of legal personality, property rights and the legal capacity to protect the interests of its members and was also severely hampered in the fundamental aspects of its religious functions.
89. Accordingly, the Court finds that there has been an interference with the applicants' rights under Article 9 interpreted in the light of Article 11.back