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11: Why aren’t Jedis charitable? – The meaning of religion in charity law

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11: Why aren’t Jedis charitable? – The meaning of religion in charity law
Leave your thoughts Nicola Evans

By Nicola Evans

The Charity Commission appears to have entered into the Christmas spirit this year with a well-timed release of its decision on the Temple of the Jedi Order (the Temple).

The decision may have provided some light-hearted headlines for the media, but it is important because the Commission has re-considered its view of the meaning of “religion” in charity law in the light of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Hodkin.

The decision in Hodkin

In Hodkin, the Supreme Court had to determine whether the Church of Scientology attended by Ms Hodkin, at which she wished to get married, was a “place of meeting for religious worship” for the purpose of s2 Places of Worship Registration Act 1855 (PWRA).

In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court, per Lord Toulson, set out a “description” (not definition) of the characteristics of a religion for the PWRA, as being:

  • a spiritual or non-secular belief system,
  • held by a group of adherents,
  • which claims to explain mankind’s place in the universe and relationship with the infinite, and
  • to teach its adherents how they are to live their lives in conformity with the spiritual understanding associated with the belief system.

The Supreme Court also considered the meaning of “religious worship”, finding it to be “wide enough to include religious services”.

The Supreme Court in Hodkin found the church in question to be capable of registration under the PWRA. It is not a charity law decision, which means it is persuasive, not binding, authority for charity law purposes.

The Charity Commission’s decision

The Temple’s main object was “To advance the religion of Jediism, for the public benefit worldwide, in accordance with the Jedi Doctrine”.

The “Jedi Doctrine” included a definition of Jediism (“… a religion based on the observance of the Force, the ubiquitous and metaphysical power that a Jedi (a follower of Jediism) believes to be the underlying, fundamental nature of the universe”), plus Jedi beliefs, Tenets, Creed and Code.

The Commission rejected the application, not being satisfied that the Temple was established for exclusively charitable purposes for the advancement of religion or for the promotion of moral and ethical improvement for the benefit of the public.

The gist of the decision is that the Temple lacks sufficient structure or rules to amount to a religion or an ethical belief system – essentially, it seems that the Jedis encourage their adherents to choose their own path, including allowing them to interpret and reject doctrine as they see fit. (This might be considered a rash approach, if you have seen the Star Wars saga, but then it is set a long long time ago and far far away …).

The application also failed on public benefit grounds, with the benefit being insufficiently clear and the suggestion that it was too focused on its adherents and not for a public class.

The meaning of religion for charity law purposes

The decision offers a further gloss on the meaning of “religion” for charity law purposes.

Trying to define religion for charity law purposes is not easy. Any definition needs to be able to encompass all those world religions which would be expected to be accepted as religions in charity law, while not drawing in organisations which would not be expected to qualify. For example, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was created as a satirical movement but has since been recognised legally as a religion in a number of jurisdictions.

The Commission’s view of the meaning of religion in charity law has developed over time. In its decision on the Church of Scientology in 1999, the Commission viewed religion for charity law purposes as involving belief in a supreme being and worship, reverence or veneration of the supreme being. The view was clarified to allow for religions which do not have a supreme being (or which have more than one), something which was recognised in a partial definition of “religion” for this purpose when the Charities Act 2006 was enacted.

In 2008, the Commission expanded its view on the “characteristics” of a religion in its public benefit guidance relating to the advancement of religion (which is relied upon in the Jedi decision). As well as the concepts of belief in and worship/veneration for a supreme being or spiritual principle, two new characteristics were added. There were that the belief system has a degree of cogency, cohesion, seriousness and importance and promotes an identifiable positive, beneficial, moral or ethical framework.

Following the Jedi decision, the characteristics appear to be:

  • Belief in one or more gods or spiritual or non-secular principles or things;
  • Relationship with the gods, principles or things which is expressed by worship, reverence and adoration, veneration, intercession or by some other religious rite or service;
  • Cogency, cohesion, seriousness and importance in the form of the belief system; and
  • Doctrines and practice of benefit to the public – capable of providing moral and ethical value or edification to the public.

The authority for the latter two characteristics is not entirely clear. The authority given for “cogency” etc in this context is two human rights cases, neither of which relate to religion or charities. The “doctrines and practice” characteristic, as presented in the decision, appears to conflate the meaning of “religion” with its advancement and/or public benefit. It may be that the third and fourth characteristics are intended to provide for the “religion” to be defined adequately, with a system of doctrines and practices which are capable of proof and which adherents are expected to follow.

Why did the Temple fail the Commission’s test?

The Temple appeared to fail as a charity in the decision for several reasons.

  • Acceptance by the Temple that the belief system may be non-secular

    The Temple’s laissez-faire approach means that it allows followers to follow them as a secular belief system. The Commission considered it lacked the “necessary spiritual or non-secular element”. This is in part based upon the fact that “in Hodkin Lord Toulson did distinguish and exclude secular belief systems from the description of religion”. However, the Commission does not go on to say whether it accepts the “description” ascribed to “religion” in Hodkin as being applicable in charity law.

  • Lack of relationship between the adherents and the gods, principles or things and lack of evidence of worship or other religious rite or service

    The Temple is a web-based organisation; the community is online. “Live services” were offered on the website, together with sermons, but it also suggested that Jediism may be adopted as a “lifestyle choice”, rather than as a religion. The Commission was not satisfied that there was evidence of the necessary relationship and “religious” rites or services.

  • Lack of cogency, cohesion, seriousness and importance in the form of belief system

    The Commission found there was “no worldwide authority or structure” for Jediism. Rather, the Jedis appeared to be an “amorphous and diverse group with a framework that allows individuals to pursue Jediism in different ways and not as a religion but as a secular system”. Jedi teachings were considered “suggestions and guidance rather than rules” so that “difference of teachings between groups is not necessarily viewed as improper or correct”. It was noted that a similar organisation was turned down in New Zealand as “merely a collection of interconnected ideas based on the Star Wars universe, rather than structured cogent and serious religion”.

    In essence, the Temple appears to have lacked what may be considered doctrines and practices, let alone doctrines and practices of a “religious” nature: what were its followers supposed to believe in and do as a result? It lacked definition.

  • Lack of doctrines and practices capable of providing moral and ethical value or edification to the public

    The reasoning here appears to mirror that under cogency etc – a general lack of structure, rules, pastoral care etc, with a “suggestion” of an “inward focus on its members rather than an outward focus on the general public” (although this latter point would appear to be a public benefit point, rather than a question of whether or not it was a religion under charity law).

Promotion of moral or ethical improvement for the benefit of the public

The Commission also considered whether the Temple may be charitable under this head of charity (as it did for the Church of Scientology in the 1999 decision). The decision sets out (at paragraph 39) what the Commission considers must be evidenced in this case to be charitable under this head.

The Temple failed under this head also, for ostensibly the same reasons – lack of sufficient coherence and a “sufficiently distinct” set of beliefs, principles and practices; and the suspicion of an “inward focus on members”.

Public benefit

Having decided that the Temple did not fall within the description of purposes in the Act, the Commission did not need to consider public benefit, but it has done so for completeness.

The Commission determined that the Temple’s objects had not been shown to be beneficial – the Commission was not satisfied that Jediism was structured sufficiently to have a beneficial impact and there was insufficient evidence to find the purpose was beneficial.

There was no evidence of harm flowing from the purpose (despite, one might think, the best efforts of the Dark Side …). Although the Commission was happy to accept there was no private benefit on the basis that the Temple’s practices “extend to the public generally”, it found that it was not evident what benefits accrue to the public, as opposed to the followers, through promotion of the Jediism as a web-based doctrine.

Conclusion

The decision provides some information about the Commission’s approach to “religion” in charity law post-Hodkin, but less clarity than might have been hoped.  In particular, the Commission does not admit whether or not it accepts the Supreme Court’s description of the characteristics of a religion.  It might be thought that doing so risks opening the “religion” door too wide, although it is a limited risk, given that any applicant for charitable status would still need to clear the public benefit hurdle (which the Church of Scientology in 1999 and the Temple in this decision both failed).

In general, however, the characteristics of a religion should only come into play if the applicant is purporting to advance something which is not already accepted as a religion for charity law purposes.

As regards Jediism, a significant aspect of its rejection was the lack of sufficient structure (essentially doctrines and practices which followers were expected to follow) and hence a lack of evidence in general (for benefit etc).  Whether a more structured Jedi organisation would satisfy the “religion” test (or the promotion of moral or ethical improvement) remains to be seen.

Another aspect contributing to the failure was that the Temple was “web-based”.  However, that does not mean that, in an increasingly digital world, it would not be possible for a charitable religion to be entirely web-based.  As for any applicant, it would be a question of having sufficient evidence to satisfy the test, but it may be that, for a web-based organisation, obtaining suitably convincing evidence may be more difficult.

23 December 2016

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