Germany Vs. Scientology -- Group Goes To Court To Seek Status As A Religion, Not Business

BERLIN - A day after thousands of Scientologists demanded religious freedom in Germany, the Church of Scientology was trying to convince a German court today that it is a religion.

A favorable decision by Germany's highest administrative court would entitle the group to benefits such as tax-exempt status and the freedom to recruit followers.

The Los Angeles-based Church of Scientology won a legal battle in July when a court in the Baden-Wuerttemberg state capital, Stuttgart, ruled that Scientology was a religious society, not a business as many critics argue. The state is seeking to overturn the decision in the Berlin court.

The court case could be the first to clarify Scientology's status in Germany, where the government has taken steps to outlaw the group. Scientology says its members suffer discrimination, including banning its members from membership in political parties and putting the group under surveillance as a threat to democracy, a step toward seeking an official ban.

Scientology is sponsoring a conference on religious freedom that opens today in Berlin.

Yesterday, an estimated 6,000 Scientologists marched through Berlin, waving U.S. and European flags and signs with quotations from church founder L. Ron Hubbard. They cheered as leaders stated their demands for equal rights in Germany and for the German government to draft a bill on religious freedom.

The dispute between Germany and the group is muddy; the Germans

give little specific evidence for their claims against the church.

The crux of the problem seems to be Scientologist's secretive and hierarchical structure, which German critics say follows a totalitarian model.