In Search of a Legal Definition of Religion
University of Szeged - Faculty of Law
Americana, Vol. V, No. 1, Spring 2009
In recent decades, the problem of defining religion for legal purposes has become more acute with the growth in the number of nontraditional religions, religious sects, and belief systems in American society. The spread of heterogenous but possibly religious phenomena has multiplied the problems flowing from the lack of clear definitional guidance on the conceptual boundaries of religion. On what criteria can a federal court apply legal provisions relating to religious matters if no definition of religion is available? Legal theorists have made serious attempts to provide an adequate definition of what religion is for First Amendment purposes, and the Supreme Court’s and other federal courts’ efforts have been manifested in a string of cases in the context of the First Amendment as well as in statutory interpretation. These efforts should not be seen as entirely fruitless, but they have not provided a generally accepted legal definition of religion. The aim of this paper is to identify the causes of this failure. The first two parts of this paper are expository in nature, summarizing the judicial and theoretical efforts to define religion in U.S. constitutional and federal law. This may provide an appropriate basis, in the third part, both for outlining the underlying and dominant contradictions of this definitional problem and for presenting some suggestions to overcome these contradictions.
Keywords: religion, First Amendment, definition of religion, natural concepts, functionalist definitions, non-essentialist approaches
JEL Classification: K19
Date posted: October 15, 2009