BERLIN (AP) _ Federal judges refused today to rule on whether the Church of Scientology is a religion, ordering a lower court to focus instead on whether the group is a non-profit venture or a money-making business.

The case, concerning a Scientology branch in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, already has been bounced several times from court to court _ reflecting the sensitive and explosive nature of Scientology's position here.

German politicians claim the Los Angeles-based group is a money-making business with totalitarian aims to overthrow democracy; the Scientologists say they are a non-profit religious group discriminated against in German society.

Judges today said that Scientology's religious status is irrelevant to this case, which focuses on whether a branch of the group in Baden-Wuerttemberg should be afforded non-profit status. They provided a guideline for the state court to make its decision, saying that Scientology would be considered a business only if it made a financial profit from selling educational materials to non-members.

No date was set for a new trial in the lower court.

Scientology has fought legal systems 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 worst yet.

For several years, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government has considered Scientology to be a cult or a totalitarian business operation. The group has been under surveillance as a threat to democracy in Germany since June, a step toward a possible ban of the organization. German journalists refer to the group as a ``sect.''

For their part, Scientologists claim discrimination at every level of German society, from being denied membership in political parties to having their children barred from schools. It has often has compared its treatment in Germany to Nazi isolation of the Jews in the years leading up to the Holocaust.

Right now, Scientology has legal non-profit status in all of Germany's 16 states. A ruling against them would likely encourage similar action against the group in other states.

The case before the judges today started in 1986, when Baden-Wuerttemberg revoked the non-profit status of a local Scientology branch. The state said the group was primarily concerned with making money by selling books and self-improvement courses, 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 non-profit status could be revoked, it first must be determined whether Scientology is a religion and thus entitled to special privileges, such as tax-exempt status and the right to recruit members.

The federal court said the religion issue _ at least in this case _ irrelevant.

The dispute between Germany and the church is muddy; the Germans give little specific evidence for their claims against the church. 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 therefore anti-democratic.