How the First Amendment is Limiting Religious Freedom

regulating religion2014 | How the First Amendment is Limiting Religious Freedom
Donald McClellan | ISSN 2291-3106

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Scientology originated and flourished in the USA, but has never really prospered outside of its homeland.  European nations have never had more than nominal numbers of Scientologists.

One of the reasons for this is that the laws of other nations do not have an equivalent of the  First Amendment to the US Constitution, and the Church of Scientology is consequently often denied status as a religion &/or charity.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

McClellan argues that the amendment intended to insure the absolute freedom of believers by prohibiting any regulation of  “[…] an establishment of religion” at all.  However, in the modern world, this is having the opposite effect. People who draft laws (including the first amendment) cannot anticipate the future. Consequently, when times change,  almost every law  is, sooner of later, probed by fraudsters who try to turn it to their advantage.

McClellan examines  the Church of Scientology as an example of an organisation that sought religious status for practical advantage (principally tax exemption) not because it saw itself as a religion.

For example, Dianetics and Scientology were originally us-constitutionpresented by their inventor, L Ron Hubbard as effective therapies of great power based on scientific research. Hubbard’s books were explicitly claimed that,  training in Dianetics and Scientology, would lead to  the relief of  almost any disease, enable them to grow new teeth and correct faulty eyesight.

Inevitably,  these claims were officially challenged. In 1963 the Food and Drug Administration seized e-meters on the grounds that the Church’s claims  that these devices could cure diseases, were demonstrably untrue.  Hubbard had, by this time, incorporated Scientology as a religious organisation, so the ‘Church’ argued in court that the meter was only used for ‘spiritual development.’ Since this was religious in nature, it fell outside of  the court’s jurisdiction.

The case hinged on whether or not Scientology was a religion. In order to demonstrate that it was not, the court had to do the impossible – produce a valid and all-embracing definition of religion. It could not, and the case was settled with an unsatisfactory compromise.

In conclusion, the first amendment prohibited, “any law respecting an establishment of religion” in order to guarantee religious freedom. However it did not define “religion”. This enables opportunists (like Scientology) to falsely claim to be a religion in order to evade their legal obligations.

Since it is practically impossible to construct a universal definition of  religion, every court decision which penalises the opportunists can have the unintended consequence of regulating the practice of another bona fide organisation.

This is the basis of McClellan’s argument that – “[…] the first amendment is limiting religious freedom”.

 

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