The Definition of “Religion”

Defining “Religion” within the Meaning of the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

For constitutional purposes–and whenever we speak of religion and the public schools, we cannot avoid speaking in terms of the Constitution–the United States Supreme Court has favored a functional definition of religion in deciding what sorts of beliefs qualify for protection under the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment.  An older line of cases emphasized the transcendent nature of the beliefs in question: belief systems based on the existence of a Supreme Being were treated as religious; others were not.  But the modern approach to defining religion for constitutional purposes is to emphasize the role which beliefs play in the life of the individual.

Thus in United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163 (1965), the Court, interpreting the intent of Congress in granting a religious exemption from military service, held that religion includes beliefs which occupy “a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God.” 380 U.S. at 176 (emphasis added).  In reaching this conclusion, the Court relied in part upon a statement by the Ecumenical Council:

Men expect from the various religions answers to the riddles of the human condition: What is man?  What is the meaning and purpose of our lives?  What is the moral good and what is sin?  What are death, judgment, and retribution after death?  (380 U.S. at 182)

Subsequent lower court cases have followed the Supreme Court’s lead.  In Malnak v. Yogi, 592 F.2d 197 (1979), the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals held that the teaching of the Science of Creative Intelligence (Transcendental Meditation) in public schools was unconstitutional.  Judge Adams, concurring, discussed the history of constitutional doctrine on this question in the following way:

It seems unavoidable, from Seeger, Welsh and Torcaso, that the Theistic formulation presumed to be applicable in the late nineteenth century cases is no longer sustainable.  Under the modern view, “religion” is not confined to the relationship of man with his Creator, either as a matter of law or as a matter of theology.  Even theologians of traditionally recognized faiths have moved away from a strictly Theistic approach in explaining their own religions.  Such movement, when coupled with the growth in the United States of many Eastern and non-traditional belief systems, suggests that the older, limited definition would deny “religious” identification to faiths now adhered to by millions of Americans.  The Court’s more recent cases reject such a result.  (592 F.2d at 207)

The case of Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961), to which Judge Adams referred, contains a dictum recognizing that there are “religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God [including] Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others. . . .”  367 U.S. at 495, footnote 11.  In Grove v. Mead School District No. 354, 753 F.2d 1528, 1534 (1985), the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals stated that “Secular humanism may be a religion,” citing Rhode Island Federation of Teachers v. Norbert, 630 F.2d 850, 854 (First Circuit 1980).1

Judge Adams concluded that in the modern approach toward defining “religion” for constitutional purposes, the most important criterion is the nature of the ideas in question.  If they relate to “ultimate” questions of life such as “the meaning of life and death, man’s role in the universe, the proper moral code of right and wrong . . . , they should be treated as religious.”  592 F.2d at 208.  See also Africa v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 662 F.2d 1025 (First Circuit 1981); and Dettmer v. Landon, 799 F.2d 929 (Fourth Circuit 1986).

The Oregon Court of Appeals has followed suit in the case of Christofferson v. Church of Scientology, 57 Or App 203 (1982).  Said the Court, “We find that, while beliefs relating to the existence of, and man’s relationship to, a God are certainly religious, belief in a traditional, or any, `god’ is not a prerequisite to a finding that a belief is religious,” citing Torcaso v. Watkins, and Malnak v. Yogi, both supra, among other cases.  57 Or App at 240.

The functional definition of religion is not only the better rule for constitutional purposes, but also is more consistent with democratic ideas of fairness and equality.  What one believes about the ultimate nature of things profoundly affects his or her temporal values, and temporal values determine one’s political orientation.  When only theistic belief systems are recognized as religious, there is a tendency to exclude only those viewpoints from the public dialogue, while other viewpoints that are just as religious but which happen to be non-theistic are given free rein, because their religious nature is not understood.  This places people whose belief systems entail the existence of a Supreme Being at an unfair disadvantage in the exercise of their rights to participate in the democratic process, and to address the great policy questions of their day.  A pluralistic society cannot allow such an imbalance.

It is of great importance to understand the major world-views in order to maintain a balanced pluralism and to ensure that our educational processes reflect this balance.  Space does not permit a detailed examination of all of the world-views outlined above.  However, the fact that the influence of New Age philosophy is both widespread and little understood indicates the need for a more in-depth consideration of the New Age world-view.  This world-view has made an impact upon public policy and in education.  The amorphous character and continual flux of the New Age world-view make it difficult to grasp, and it is, therefore, critically important to make the effort to delineate the essential features of this movement.

———

Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961).

United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163 (1965);

Malnak v. Yogi, 592 F.2d 197 (3d Cir. 1979).

Rhode Island Federation of Teachers v. Norbert, 630 F.2d 850, 854 (1st Cir. 1980).

Africa v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 662 F.2d 1025 (1st Cir. 1981).

Grove v. Mead School District No. 354, 753 F.2d 1528, 1534 (9th Cir. 1985).

Dettmer v. Landon, 799 F.2d 929 (4th Cir. 1986).

Christofferson v. Church of Scientology, 57 Or App 203 (1982).  Said the Court, “We find that, while beliefs relating to the existence of, and man’s relationship to, a God are certainly religious, belief in a traditional, or any, `god’ is not a prerequisite to a finding that a belief is religious,” citing Torcaso v. Watkins, and Malnak v. Yogi, both supra, among other cases.  57 Or App at 240.

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