Defining Religion

Kaitlyn Bryans, Staff Writer

    What constitutes a religion? How can someone just up and make a religion? At what point can a person’s ideas be elevated to religious status?

There are several ways in which one can define religion, legally or through a dictionary, but ultimately religion is a sticky subject that mostly seems to be subjective. There are some rules in the U.S., nonetheless. The federal government’s definition of religion is loose and all-inclusive in order to better promote First Amendment freedom of religion.

Keeping the definition vague is both freeing and yet sometimes tricky, for example, in the 1944 Supreme Court case, United States v. Ballard. This court case tried to strike the line between fraud and actual spiritual belief. Guy W. Ballard was the founder of a religion called “I Am,” a movement centered on 3,000 messages that Ballard had received from “Ascended Masters of the Great White Brotherhood.”

“The Masters” were said to include Christian prophets and Jesus. The movement encouraged followers to become in touch with their own sense of “I Am,” defined as the energy that flows from a God who is the creative center of the universe.

All of this sounds like other religions before it, but what put Ballard in hot water was the fact that “I Am” had been convicted of falsely representing members of the movement as possessing supernatural healing powers. The jury ultimately had to try to decide the difference between obtaining goods under false pretenses or if the claims of “I Am” members were genuinely believed. More or less: fraud or faith? Did this faith then protect the members under the First Amendment?

The final decision is not very helpful in this question, really. The court decided that sincerity should not be a question on which a jury decides a case, but that the “I Am” movement did fall under the Constitution’s requirements for a religion. This is still a foggy, indecisive example, but it sports an interesting point of conversation.

At what point does religion override the law? Should there be a better definition legally? For now, know that as long as there is belief, traditions, rituals and followers of a set of ideas that help to orient humanity in the order of existence, it is a religion.

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