Germany's fight with the Church of Scientology hinges on a central question: Is the group a religion, as it says, or a money-making business?
The question has bounced from court to court recently, concerning a Scientology branch in the southwestern state of Baden-Wurttemberg. On Thursday, federal judges refused to touch it, kicking the case back to the state court with a firm instruction: Religion in this case is irrelevant.
Instead, they ruled, the lower court should focus on whether the mission in Stuttgart was a business or a not-for-profit organization concerned with "spiritual advisement."
They provided a guideline for the state court to make its decision, saying Scientology would be considered a business only if it made a profit from selling educational materials to non-members.
No date was set for a new state court trial.
Scientology welcomed the ruling as a victory, noting the Federal Administrative Court sent the matter back rather than relying on a 1995 Federal Labor Court verdict that declared Scientology a commercial enterprise.
"The German government's denial of the religious character of Scientology has been judicially invalidated in a higher court," said Heber C. Jentzsch, president of the Los Angeles-based church, which has its spiritual headquarters in Clearwater.
The Baden-Wurttemberg case started in 1986, when the state tried to yank Scientology's not-for-profit status.
Underlying the whole business is the German government's suspicion the group is a money-making business with totalitarian goals.
Since June, the church has been under government surveillance as a threat to democracy, a step toward a possible ban of the organization.
Scientology has fought legal battles before _ it took the church 25 years to convince the United States to grant it tax-free status as a religion in 1993 _ but members say their struggle in Germany is their hardest yet. Scientologists claim discrimination at every level of German society, from being denied membership in political parties to having their children barred from schools.
In Baden-Wurttemberg, a state court ruled that the group was primarily concerned with making money, not the "idealistic goals" generally associated with a non-profit organization.
A regional court overturned the ruling in July, saying that before the group's legal status could be revoked, it first must be determined whether Scientology is a religion and thus granted broader protections under the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.
The federal court said religion has no bearing on the case.
Right now, Scientology has legal non-profit status in all of Germany's 16 states. An unfavorable ruling likely would encourage similar action against the group in other states.
The dispute between Germany and the church is muddy, but the crux of the problem seems to be Scientology's secretive and hierarchical structure, which German critics say follows a totalitarian model and is anti-democratic.