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article imageAccording to Law, What Is a Religion ?

By Carol Forsloff     Feb 18, 2009 in World
In preparing a story about the religions of Natchitoches, Louisiana several days ago, I checked out a book on Mormons. I told the clerk I was writing about religions. “That’s not one,” she said, “It’s a cult. They don’t believe like us."
Well, first of all the word “us” I thought interesting since the young woman neither knows me or my beliefs. But no matter, I smiled and said, “What makes you think so?” The sweet-faced femme with Southern drawl said simply, “I just know, don’t you.” “Actually,” I said, “I don’t.”
So what makes a cult these days, I wondered and decided to find out. Besides it wasn’t long ago that Mitt Romney, a Mormon who ran in the Presidential primaries, went on television to defend his faith as a viable religion.
Just about every major religion has been a cult at one time or another. Christianity was considered different enough to cause consternation to Romans and Jews alike. The divisions of Christianity have called one another cults as well, but what makes a religion legal?
The Church of Scientology is recognized over most of the world as a religion, although some may define it as cult. Believers use this fact to recruit. Others consider it a cult with a nefarious character. That’s true of other groups as well. For example, the Branch Davidians were controversial both before and after David Koresh.
The Internal Revenue Service gives this as definition :
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.
But some wonder if this set of criteria of the IRS is accurate and if it might just be biased and flawed. One writer observes that it distinctly favors high or formal churches with large congregations. Unitarians and Quakers often meet informally in homes or small places. Some groups use a selection from different religious literature. Some have history that is aligned with other groups, but hve such different characters that they couldn’t be associated with the same group, such as the Quakers and Baptists who left the Church of England at the same time and have a shared history in some respects and unshared in others. Lots of groups don’t have Sunday school for the young. So if it isn’t the IRS standard that is reasonable, what should be used?
It turns out the debate over the definition of religion is as old as history itself and the debate has gone on for ages. Even lawyers and nations have had trouble sorting it out. The problems involve the imposition of societal standards and judgments that can make a difference. So when it comes to protecting religion the application of the law requires a definition, but that definition brings debate. Then there is identity religion where folks subscribe to a community but not necessarily to a specific set of religious beliefs. That would include many Jews, for example.
In most places the laws that regulate religion are usually oriented towards majority practices and the promotion of specific groups to the community to be recognized. So the actual practice of faith means that in countries with large Christian populations Christmas is a holiday and in Islamic countries laws that permit the ritual slaughter of animals.
So what is a religion? The answer is really who applies and over time who is accepted after enough fuss is made and enough adherents develop to make that fuss heard by those in control and power, according to those who have reviewed this question.
I guess that means we can include Mormons as a religion. They have had two well-known Governors and a host of other people in political offices and a little over 12 million members worldwide. That’s certainly enough to make a fuss and a religion.
More about Religion, Scientology, Internal revenue service
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