Monday, November 9, 2009

Religious Regulation in Recent News

If you want to get a glimpse of how religion is regulated in the real world, just follow the news. In the past two weeks, I have seen dozens of stories that illustrate how the rules of the religious game are currently being negotiated. Here are a bunch of them, some from in the U.S. and some from out of the U.S. You do not need to read all of these; just get a sense of the variety of ways that religion is regulated.
  1. From the Baltimore Sun: Missouri says Yoga centers must pay sales tax despite the practitioners' claims that it is religion that should not be taxed.
  2. From Florida Today: the self-titled "pot pastor" is found guilty in a Florida court of illegally growing marijuana, though he claims it is used for religious purposes.
  3. From Religion Clause here and here: a West Virgina court ruled that requiring students to get immunizations does not violate religious freedoms, while a teacher sues her school claiming that forcing her to submit fingerprints violates her religious freedom.
  4. From the NY Times: a British court must confront how to define who is and who is not a Jew.
  5. From the Wall Street Journal: a debate in Switzerland centers on whether Muslim buildings can have certain external features.
  6. From The Globe and Mall: a French court finds Scientology guilty of "organized fraud."
  7. From Forum 18: Jehovah's Witnesses are denied legal status in Nagorno-Karabakh (an internationally unrecognized region in Azerbaijan).
  8. From WorldWide Religion News: there is a proposed law to place restrictions on evangelizing in Russia.


  1. I find these accounts extremely interesting for several reasons. First, it appears as though, as least in numbers one, two and six - the case with the Yoga Centers, 'Pot Pastor', and Scientology 'fraud'- that the pluralism of Religion is spreading to and attempting to be adopted by 'businesses' and people for the sole purpose of financial gain. Prior to the increase in religious practices and the decrease of secularization, no company would have ever dreamed of classifying itself a religious enterprise, i.e. the Yoga Centers/Scientology, but now since religion is such a thriving and relatively popular commerce , to say the least, companies are conforming and classifying themselves as "religions" seemingly in any attempt to get tax exemptions or "religious sympathy". In the case of the Pot Pastor, he was a self-proclaimed priest and while the priestly garb neither gained him sympathy nor won his innocence, he seemingly was able to justify and rationalize his use of pot as being "religious and healing".

    The scientology and yoga both are testament to the "competition" that has generated religious pluralism (referring to the variation in the religious behavior in a market) and high participation. While 140 yoga studios received reminder letters about paying taxes, the group called, the Spirit of Yoga does have a decent case to argue, in the Hindu religion it is one of the six aspects in hindu philosophy- directly related to their religious practices thus increasing religious capital for the participants. While I do not think these businesses are trying to be free-riders, they are trying to make money and not contribute directly to the government. But then aren't all religious churches and temples free-riding by not having to pay taxes? surely it is legal free-riding and restrictions are banned for religious facilities, but their costs are negligible in comparison to the benefits.

    Scientology fraud is no surprise, I believe that the victims of the church in France were probably so warped into the religion that they gave all their financial savings to this overpowering 'church of Scientology' a system that cleverly leaves people poor and desperate without anywhere else to turn and so they stay with the Church. There is no doubt that this church committed fraud and was a hardly a church. With members of the church having previous convictions for responsibilities for members that committed suicide, the only reason the church still exists is because of social ties and religious capital.

  2. Speaking generally for all the different news, I believe that creating laws or doing businesses with religions can be very tricky. While a religious group can truly claim that a yoga is a religious practice and should not be taxed, or that growing marijuana is also part of a religious practice, is hard to enforce and confirm if people are in fact truly following their beliefs. There's no doubt that there are people in this world who would take advantage, or "free-ride", these laws who were made for religious groups only. These types of benefits that the government or businesses are offering to the religious groups would be more easily enforced to religions who are more strict or that have a more solidified doctrine. Some of the more liberal religions tend to change their truths, which makes really hard to enforce and verify their actual beliefs.

  3. The Florida man who was found guilty of illegally growing marijuana did have a valid argument, as he stated that he is a member of the Hawaii Cannabis Ministry, which is a religious group that uses marijuana for religious use legally in Hawaii. In the United States Native Americans can grow and use peyote under the federal statue 42 USC § 1996a and in Mexico natives are allowed to use mushrooms and peyote for religious ceremonies. Many religions believe that certain drugs and hallucinogens are deified or used to communicate with a deity. “Unique among these other gods was soma. Soma was at the same time a god, a plant, and the juice of that plant… The Mexican Indians seem to regard the hallucinogenic plants, whether mushrooms, peyotl, or morning glories, as mediators with god, not as a god. The Nahua-Aztecs and other groups speaking the same tongue- called the mushrooms teo-nanacatl, ‘god’s flesh’, but the mushrooms do not figure in their pantheon.”(R. Gordon Wasson, Soma the Divine Mushroom of Immortality). As seen above if these religious groups have attained religious freedom from persecution on the basis that the use of certain plants are part of their religious exercise then self-proclaimed minister Steven Swallick had a valid argument, but it did not help him that his testimony about belonging to the group was done so without the presence of the jury.

    Articles 7 and 8 are classic examples of market regulation by governments, as in the case of Jehovah’s witnesses not being allowed legal status in Nagorno-Karabakh, the government sets up a barrier to entry in the religious market. "Our Religion Law bans proselytism, so they don't have the right to spread their faith," this is clearly the work of other religious groups in an attempt to maintain market power. “Jehovah's Witness charter allows what he called "soul-hunting" (proselytism), which is banned in Karabakh's Religion Law for all communities apart from the Armenian Apostolic Church.” It looks as though the Armenian Apostolic Church is the monopolist in this religious market and is using its power to lobby the government for laws prohibiting the free assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses in order to prevent the formation of religious capital.

    After the end of the Cold War, Russia struggled until it formed a more capitalist form of market, but there are still many in Russia that feel as though they have been betrayed and are spiraling toward an American puppet government. As the book God is Back states, American religion is exporting capitalism and globalizing markets everywhere. The proposition of laws that restrict the evangelization of Russia are most likely supported by the Eastern Orthodox Church and former Soviet members seeking to prevent not only the spread of Protestantism but also the spread of the capitalist system that many do hate.

  4. Courtney, I think Scientology ruling in France is troubling because the government is deciding whether or not the religious group follows through on its religious promises. The problem is that whoever is in power can then use government to squash potential challengers as long as they say the promises were not kept.

    Juliano, As I understand it, the sincerity of the person like the Pot Pastor is something the courts usually try to consider. I found it odd that judge would not allow him to talk about the religious angle in court, but I am not a legal scholar.

    Ramiro, You might be interested to know that, at the end of the Cold War, there was at first a mad rush of missionaries from the West into the former Soviet republics only to see many of the former state churches from the pre-Soviet era lobby hard for barriers to religious entry.

  5. Growing up without a background in religion, it is difficult for me to comprehend when arguments are made towards religions. In the article about Yoga classes, it is argued that these classes perpetuate the Hindu traditions and therefore should be exempt from tax. It seems that whenever the stakes conflict with religious beliefs, people become a lot more cautious in dealing with the matter- even if the religious beliefs and plausibility do not reach out to everybody. Taxing a yoga class to me is as logical as taxing any other business in our market, it seems to me unfair that they should be exempt from tax just beacuse THEY believe that this is a spiritual practice. I hate that everything becomes so commerical under our economic system, when everything has a monetary value, the real value of it is no longer existent. Similar enough, the case with the pot pastor exemplifies the same kind of dogmatism carried out by personal beliefs. A self proclaimed pastor rationalizes his behavior- that is obviously prohibited under our legal system- by his spirtual beliefs, then gets punished for doing it. It a complex situation when our society allows freedom of beliefs but ends up in situations like this where individuals use their impractical or unrealistic beliefs to apply to the world around them. This results in a discrepency between what is real and not real to different individuals.
    I feel that when religious pluralisms flourish, individuals will be more divided in one way or another. Pluralism decreases the plausibility of each religion in that it leaves a non-believer, like myself, with too many..or too little options to even consider a religous belief.

  6. As I am of Catholic belief, and growing up in the United States, I have not seen or dealt with any government regulation of my religion. It seems as if in many of the articles, the government in either the U.S. or outside the U.S. is wrongfully prosecuting certain religions. In particular, the article about Scientology in France shows the government abusing it's power, while the article about Judiasm in a particular school shows how people can be discriminated even by schools.
    The Scientology article seems to have multiple governments having a negative outlook on the new sect as a cult. The sect is getting bad press, and it seems as most of the bad press comes from members who had bad experiences with the religion and ended up spending too much money on the religion. I doubt they were forced to spend the money as they have said in the article, and the court really needs to look into this and check with current, happy members of scientology.
    As for the Judaism issue, I felt the article was written quite well. The issue was dealt with well too. The court ended up coming to an agreement that you cannot simply dismiss or exclude someone from getting into the school because of their parents religion. The child's faith is personally chosen and should not fall upon how the parents came about becoming Jewish. I feel the school was wrong for doing that, which is why the court ruled that way.

  7. Kevin, Thanks for your comment. I'm glad to hear you haven't faced any persecution for being Catholic. This has not always been the case in the US. Irish Catholics were persecuted to varying degrees in our nation's past.

  8. Zeid Anabtawi 62501598November 23, 2009 at 7:23 PM

    The news post about yoga and the argument that yoga is part of a certain religious practice is one of the best examples of "free-riding." In Missouri, yoga centers are having the debate whether or not they should pay sales taxes, claiming that it is a religious practice (so taxes should be exempt). "Free-riding" would exist if the people running these centers were not religious or believe yoga is a religious practice, even though some might believe yoga is a religious practice, because they would not have to pay taxes.

    Another interesting article is about the "Pot Pastor" in Florida. He was found guilty and argued that he was illegally growing marijuana because of religious purposes. He states that he is a part of the Hawaiian Cannabis Ministry, which is a sect in which growing and using marijuana is legal because of religious practices. This argument, along with many religious arguments, are very hard to distinguish whom is correct (morally or legally). If the state of Florida has a law against growing and using marijuana, then the state can rule against the defendant, but if religious freedom is very strong in this area, then there would be a valid argument. This is very similar to the animal sacrifices that occur illegally in America. Muslims in Jordan often sacrifice a sheep when a member of the family buys a new car, and they put the blood of the sheep on the car for blessing purposes. These religious practices that involve animal sacrifices occur illegally in other countries but are argued that this action is a religious practice.


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