17
Feb 17

IANAL*

Search back through previous entries and you will see that I have long maintained that there are a lot of activities that people engage in that have a religious component (there are more). However, to use one of the great cries of any student of philosophy or religion, "DEFINE YOUR TERMS!"

What is Religion? I mean in a legal and Protected-by-the-first-amendment-sense.
*I am not a lawyer.

Turns out that religion is a lot like pornography, you are supposed to know it when you see it.

In 1890 the US Supreme Court said "“[T]he term ‘religion’ has reference to one’s views of his relations to his Creator, and to the obligations they impose of reverence for his being and character, and of obedience to his will.” in Davis v. Benson. However, this definition would change in recognition of non-theistic faiths. In 1961 the Court said that goverment could not aid “those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.” In a footnote the Court clarified that this principle extended to “religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God … Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others.” In 1965 when deciding on a conscientious objector status the Court asked whether "a given belief that is sincere and meaningful occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God of one who clearly qualifies for the exemption. Where such beliefs have parallel positions in the lives of their respective holders we cannot say that one is ‘in relation to a Supreme Being’ and the other is not.” Five years later it said individuals could be denied exemption only if “those beliefs are not deeply held and those whose objection to war does not rest at all upon moral, ethical, or religious principle but instead rests solely upon consideration of policy, pragmatism, or expediency.”

However, those rulings were very expansive, making possible - it would seem - religions of one. Thus in 1972, the majority opinion in Wisconsin v. Yoder indicated that the free-exercise clause applied only to “a ‘religious’ belief or practice,” and “the very concept of ordered liberty precludes allowing every person to make his own standards on matters of conduct in which society as a whole has important interests.”

The 1981 case Thomas v. Review Board Chief Justice Warren Burger cautiously stated, “[o]nly beliefs rooted in religion are given special protection to the exercise of religion.”

That is just to name a few cases in which the definition of religion comes into play. Not very helpful. The IRS, on the other hand, has a very clear set of criteria for what constitutes a church.

The IRS criteria are:
a distinct legal existence,
a recognized creed and form of worship,
a definite and distinct ecclesiastical government,
a formal code of doctrine and discipline
a distinct religious history,
a membership not associated with any other church or denomination,
an organization of ordained ministers,
ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed studies,
a literature of its own,
established places of worship,
regular congregations,
regular religious services,
Sunday schools for religious instruction of the young,
school for the preparation of its ministers.

Those criteria can be destroyed by any one with the smallest bit of legal insight. For example the very Pilgrims we venerate in our Thanksgiving plays, the Plymouth Brethren, "oppose formalism in worship and have no liturgy." In fact I would argue that the definitions given here "favor large, well-established, high or formal churches and discriminate against small, new, unconventional, informal or low churches." To the point of being worthless.

This all comes up, of course, because of the so-called War on Religion that certain elements in the US claim is going on. When in reality they feel that there cultural definitions are being tested and they do not like it.

Government, law, and religion are poor bedfellows. Attempting to use the law to give your religious beliefs protection is a bad idea. Any definitions you give to protect yourself short of out right religious tests or oaths of allegiance can be circumvented to allow the very thing you are trying to prevent. Mandating religious tests and oaths of allegiance by a government gives it the power to define faith and its practice. Religion ceases to be about faith, spirituality, morality, or anything else and becomes merely a tool for control.

Then again, those who advocate such are often merely tools themselves.

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