[The administrative tribunal of Clermont-Ferrand referred to the Conseil d’État the question whether the claimant association could be regarded as a religious association under the previsions of article 1382 - 4° of the General Code of Taxes and the law of 9 December 1905 on the separation of Churches and State]
Article 12 of the Law of 31 December 1987 provides that “before deciding on a request which raises a novel question of law of considerable difficulty and frequent occurrence the administrative tribunal may refer the affair to the Conseil d’État, such decision not being appealable … A decision on the substance of the matter is stayed until the Conseil d’État has given its opinion”.
Article 1382 - 4° of the General Code of Taxes exempts from building tax “buildings used for religious purposes which belong to the state, a department or commune, or have been accorded under article 4 of the Law of 1905 to associations or groups falling under title IV of that law, as well as those accorded under article 112 of the Law of 29 April 1926 to associations falling under that article, and buildings acquired or put up by such associations or groups.” Unless it has previously been accorded under the title relating to the control of gifts and legacies, the benefit of this exemption may be claimed only by public bodies and religious associations under the Law of 9 December 1905 or their unions.
It follows from articles 18 and 19 of the Law of 9 December 1905 on the separation of Churches and State that associations which claim the status of religious bodies must have as their exclusive object the exercise of a religion, that is, in the context of these articles, the ceremonial performance of certain rites or practices by a gathering of persons of the same faith; furthermore, even with regard to this purpose, such bodies must have no function other than the acquisition, the hiring, the construction, the fitting-out and the maintenance of the buildings which serve the religion and the maintenance and education of ministers and other persons involved in the religious ceremonies;
Thus an association can only be recognised as having the status of a religious body if it has been determined that it serves a religion and has no function other than its observance;
In order to determine whether or not an association is religious in nature one must consider its statutes and its actual activities: an association which engages in activities other than those identified above forfeits its status as a religious organisation, unless those activities relate directly to its religious practice and are purely collateral to it;
Granted that the only restriction on the liberty of religions guaranteed in the Republic under the Law of 9 December 1905 is in the interest of ordre public, the fact that some of the activities of an association could be contrary to ordre public would prevent the association from benefiting from the status of a religious organisation and consequently from exemption from the tax on buildings;
While it is for the Conseil d’État under the procedure laid down in article 12 of the Law of 31 December 1987 to give its opinion on a novel point of law, it is no part of its role to deal with the substance of a claim, in this case to determine whether the Association locale pour le culte des témoins de Jehovah de Riom can or cannot qualify as a religious organisation under article 1382-4° of the General Code of Taxes and the Law of 9 December 1905 on the separation of Churches and State….
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