Friday, December 30, 2016

Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016

On December 16, 2016, President Obama signed into law a new version of the International Religious Freedom Act from 1998.  The older law established the USCIRF, a government commission we will learn about in class, in an effort to protect religious freedom.  The interesting thing about this new version of the law is that it explicitly accords the same protection to atheists and other non-religious persons.  The new law can be found here.  An RNS article can be found here.

That the new language has been included is not surprising if you have been following trends in religion and church-state relations.  In fact, the new language reflects two larger trends that have been going on for some time in the U.S.  First, there is growing acceptance of atheists and non-religious persons more generally in the U.S.  Though still a small percentage of Americans, their numbers are growing and with lots of public attention.  Second, for some time legal rulings have used functional rather than substantive definitions of religion.  It is not a belief in god or gods that has merited legal protections but rather any sort of belief system that a person claims, even if that belief system is explicitly atheistic.

What will be interesting is to see how this change in the law is reflected in future USCIRF annual reports on religious freedom around the world.  Will future reports give increased attention to persecution of atheists?

UK Commission Rules Jediism not a Religious Charity

The Charity Commission for England and Wales officially ruled earlier this month that Jediism is not a religious charity.  The official report can be found here, and this article provides a useful summary.  The difficult path for acceptance for Jediism goes back years (see this earlier post from 2011), and this ruling gives a sense of finality to the matter... at least temporarily until more efforts are made for wider acceptance of Jediism.

The Commission is tasked with identifying which organizations be given official charity status.  Despite the headlines for some news articles, this ruling does not declare that Jediism is not a religion.  It instead ruled that the particular group that applied for recognition as a religious charity -- the Temple of the Jedi Order -- does not merit that recognition because they determined that the group was not organized for "exclusively charitable purposes for the advancement of religion and/or the promotion of moral and ethical improvement for the benefit of the public."  Those that associate themselves with this group may consider their beliefs and practices to be religion, but they will not receive the legal benefits accorded to other recognized religious groups in the U.K.

Although the origins of Jediism in the U.K. are actually tied to a joke answer given on the government census, this latest event illustrates the complexity of defining religion.  See the official report in particular.  Using case law as a guide, the Commission only considers a group to have religious status if it has a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion, and importance.  The report lays out how Jediism fails to meet this standard.  At one level, the report reflects common sense that ideas taken from a fictional movie should not be given the same status as those from historical religious figures.  Yet, the argument laid out in the report makes numerous suppositions of a very subjective nature.  For example, it gives credit to a similar New Zealand ruling that Jediism is a set of interconnected ideas rather than a structured coherent religion.  Exactly where is the line drawn between set of interconnected ideas and structured coherent religion?

This story is not over.  The British Jedis will continue the fight, and if they do so long enough I suspect they will get that recognition.  It always takes new groups time and effort to achieve recognition.  The Jedis just need to stick around long enough, act sufficiently like other religious groups (have meetings, be seen in public doing good deeds, codify their teachings, etc.) in the meantime, and they will then get the recognition they want.  Will they last that long, or is their future bleak and their peak limited to a time long ago in a galaxy far, far away?

Gallup's Five Key Findings on Religion in the U.S.

Gallup recently released a summary of key findings on religion in the U.S.  Below I list the five key findings word-for-word but without explanation;  for explanation see their site here.
  1. America remains largely a Christian nation, although less so than in the past.
  2. The trend away from formal religion continues.
  3. A majority still say religion is important in their eyes.
  4. Americans continue to say that religion is losing its influence in American society.
  5. Religion remains intertwined with political self-identification.