UK Supreme Court: Religion Does Not Require God

Last week, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom–since 2009, the highest court in the UK–handed down what looks to be a significant decision on the meaning of “religion” in English law. The decision suggests that, for legal purposes, religion does not require a belief in God.

The case involved a couple who wished to marry in a Scientologist church in London. Under English law, marriages performed in a “place of religious worship” are considered valid. Nonetheless, the couple faced a problem. In 1970, an English court concluded that Scientology is not a religion, because Scientology does not hold a belief in God. So, when the couple sought to have their church certified as a place where marriages might take place, the relevant government official refused: if Scientology is not a religion, a Scientologist church cannot be a “place of religious worship.” The couple then sued.

Last week, the Supreme Court sided with the couple. The 1970 opinion was wrong, the court held. Scientology is indeed a religion. For one thing, Lord Toulson’s opinion explained, Scientology does hold a belief in a supreme deity, albeit an impersonal and abstract deity. Anyway, belief in a deity is not necessary. Religion, Lord Toulson wrote, means:

a spiritual or non-secular belief system, held by a group of adherents, which claims to explain mankind’s place in the universe and relationship with the infinite, and to teach its adherents how they are to live their lives in conformity with the spiritual understanding associated with the belief system…. Such a belief system may or may not involve belief in a supreme being, but it does involve a belief that there is more to be understood about mankind’s nature and relationship to the universe than can be gained from the sense or from science.

On this definition–and Lord Toulson made clear he was not announcing a categorical test for all circumstances–Scientology qualifies as a religion. The court ordered the government to certify the couple’s church as a place where valid marriages could take place.

There’s a lot going on in Lord Toulson’s opinion, and I can’t do it justice in a short post. Three observations, though. First, it seems entirely correct to say that “religion” does not necessarily mean a belief in God. Some versions of Buddhism do not hold a belief in a deity, for example, and it would be very odd to have a definition of religion that excluded Buddhism. I don’t know enough about Scientology to know whether it should be considered a religion, but the fact that it is not conventionally theistic shouldn’t be dispositive.

Second, it seems correct that religion must have some supernatural component. Otherwise, religion collapses into philosophy. Of course, we might protect strong secular convictions in addition to religion. In fact, the European Convention on Human Rights protects both religious and secular convictions. But the relevant English law in this case speaks of “religious worship,” not “secular convictions,” and pretty much everybody knows the difference between the two. It doesn’t do any good to pretend a law is vaguer than it is.

Finally, note Lord Toulson’s insistence that religion involves a group of adherents. This is very significant. Religion is inherently communal, and some of the most important benefits the state derives from religion–for example, greater civic participation–depend on religion’s being a group activity. In America, some people have begun to argue for a very individualistic definition of religion, one in which a sole practitioner, following her own inner voice, can qualify as a religion for legal purposes. Earlier this year, a federal appeals court rejected this view, and there are good reasons to do so. I’ll have more to say about all this is a forthcoming paper, to be published next month by the European University Institute. I’ll post more on this subject then. 

The case is R (on the application of Hodkin and another) v. Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages (Dec. 11, 2013).

Vakulenko, “Islamic Veiling in Legal Discourse”

9780415565509This December, Routledge will publish Islamic Veiling in Legal Discourse by Anastasia Vakulenko (Birmingham Law School). The publisher’s description follows.

Islamic Veiling in Legal Discourse looks at relevant law and surrounding discourses in order to examine the assumptions and limits of the debates around the issue of Islamic veiling that has become so topical in recent years. For some, Islamic veiling indicates a lack of autonomy, the oppression of women and the threat of Islamic radicalism to western secular values. For others, it suggests a positive autonomous choice, a new kind of gender equality and a legitimate exercise of one’s freedom of religion – a treasured right in democratic societies. This book finds that, across seemingly diverse legal and political traditions, a set of discursive frameworks – the preoccupation with autonomy and choice; the imperative of gender equality; and a particular western understanding of religion and religious subjectivity – shape the positions of both proponents and opponents of various restrictions on Islamic veiling. Rather than take a position on one or the other side of the debate, the book focuses on the frameworks themselves, highlighting their limitations.

Smith, “The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom”

9780674724754-lgThis February, Harvard University Press will publish The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom by Steven D. Smith (University of San Diego).

Familiar accounts of religious freedom in the United States often tell a story of visionary founders who broke from the centuries-old patterns of Christendom to establish a political arrangement committed to secular and religiously neutral government. These novel commitments were supposedly embodied in the religion clauses of the First Amendment. But this story is largely a fairytale, Steven D. Smith says in this incisive examination of a much-mythologized subject. He makes the case that the American achievement was not a rejection of Christian commitments but a retrieval of classic Christian ideals of freedom of the church and freedom of conscience.

Smith maintains that the distinctive American contribution to religious freedom was not in the First Amendment, which was intended merely to preserve the political status quo in matters of religion. What was important was the commitment to open contestation between secularist and providentialist understandings of the nation which evolved over the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, far from vindicating constitutional principles, as conventional wisdom suggests, the Supreme Court imposed secular neutrality, which effectively repudiated this commitment to open contestation. Rather than upholding what was distinctively American and constitutional, these decisions subverted it. The negative consequences are visible today in the incoherence of religion clause jurisprudence and the intense culture wars in American politics.