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Tax break for Scientology courses denied

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ruled Monday that money spent on Church of Scientology courses is not tax-deductible.

The 5-2 ruling written by Justice Thurgood Marshall came in a case concerning government efforts to tax money paid the church for 'auditing' and 'training' services. Scientologists believe 'auditing' helps an inidividual achieve a higher level of 'spiritual competence' through sessions with a trained Scientologist. The training courses study the doctrines of Scientology.

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Church members have paid thousands of dollars for the sessions and have tried to deduct the amounts from their taxes as charitable donations. The Internal Revenue Service disallowed the deductions.

Marshall wrote that the payments indeed are not contributions or gifts within the meaning of IRS rules and therefore are not tax-deductible. His opinion also held that the rule does not infringe on the First Amendment rights of Scientologists to freedom of religion.

'Any burden imposed on auditing or training therefore derives solely from the fact that, as a result of the deduction denial, adherents have less money available to gain access to such sessions,' Marshall wrote. 'this burden is no different from that imposed by any public tax or fee; indeed, the burden imposed by the denial of the 'contribution or gift' deduction would seem to pale by comparison to the overall federal income tax burden on an adherent.'

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In dissent, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, said the court 'acquisces in the decision of the Internal Revenue Service to manufacture a singular exception to its 70-year practice of allowing fixed payments indistinguishable from those made by petitioners to be deducted as charitable contributions.'

O'Connor said the decision 'discriminates against the Church of Scientology.'

Justices William Brennan and Anthony Kennedy took no part in the ruling.

The case was brought by Robert Hernandez, who claimed an income tax deduction of $7,338 for contributions to the church in 1981. The IRS denied it and then assessed him a penalty of $2,245, a decision upheld by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Lower courts have been divided over whether auditing fees may be claimed as deductions. In 1987, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said, 'Regardless of the timing of the payment or details of the church's method of soliciting contributions from its members, an amount remitted to a qualified church with no return other than participation in strictly spiritual and doctrinal religious practices is a (charitable) contribution.'

That case remains pending before the Supreme Court.

The Church of Scientology has been in and out of court for years. Dozens of suits have been filed against the church founded by the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard by former members who have charged they were defrauded and harassed by the organization. The church has paid millions to rid itself of such litigation.

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