Thursday, October 22, 2015

Church of the Sword Seeks Recognition

Here's an article about another new religion that I've never heard of trying to obtain legal recognition through the courts. The Church of the Sword is a non-theistic religion founded five years ago in New Hampshire that espouses libertarian principles and self-improvement. It also teaches sword-fighting, which frankly is pretty awesome.

However, so far this new religion is having trouble being recognized as such. The group was found to be "neither religious nor a church" by the Cheshire County Superior Court, and it's attorney is now presenting the case to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

In March, their appeal to the Cheshire County Superior Court was dismissed. The court issued an opinion stating the Church of the Sword “is neither religious nor a church,” but rather it “is clearly a social organization that uses religious vocabulary to describe its practices” and that its doctrines “are far more related to politics and self-improvement than to religion.”

By taking the case to the Supreme Court, the libertarian activists and Free State Project members who comprise church leadership brought themselves to the fore of a trend in the state. At least three newly created churches with Free State Project ties have sought tax exemption in varied court cases in 2014 and 2015.

Representing the church in a 15-minute oral argument before the five Supreme Court justices Thursday, attorney Dan Hynes said he wants a trial in which jurors would decide whether the church members’ beliefs are sincerely held. He said while New Hampshire courts have had little to say in defining religion, federal courts have demonstrated a standard the justices should follow.

“We’re asking the court to adopt the bright line rule that if it’s a sincerely held belief, that’s all that matters in religion,” Hynes said. He characterized the town as having unfairly discriminated against the applicants because their religion is relatively new and doesn’t necessarily proclaim existence of a god.

“I would suggest Buddhism has hundreds of millions of people. They don’t have a god. They’re essentially working toward greater self-improvement. I would suggest that’s exactly what the Church of the Sword is doing,” he said.

Now if the church is engaging in political activism, the courts are probably right - and, I will add, that implies evangelical megachurches similarly involved in politics should lose their tax-exempt status as well. I'll freely admit that I don't know very much about the Free State Project and the extent of its activities, and if the whole thing is simply being perpetrated as a tax dodge, the group likewise shouldn't qualify.

I do see one red flag in the photograph above, taken from their web site. If I'm not mistaken, that's a Ron Paul banner hanging on the wall behind the projection screen. Churches are not allowed to endorse political candidates, so if the church wants its tax-exempt status recognized that banner has to come down. But how difficult is that, really?

Otherwise I agree with Hynes' argument. Not all Buddhists are theists (though some are), and Buddhism is still recognized as a legitimate religion. The same could be said of Thelema. Whether or not a belief system is theistic, it seems to me that if those beliefs are sincerely held they should qualify. There's a long history of rulings stating pretty clearly that sincerity of belief cannot be evaluated by the courts.

As another example, I would put forth The Satanic Temple, whose members are LaVey Satanists - explicit atheists who don't believe in a literal Satan. But the Temple is officially recognized as a religion. Just because the Church of Satan is older shouldn't mean that they get recognition but any new non-theistic religion does not.

The standard used by the courts needs to be consistent, and take into account even unusual beliefs stemming from new religious movements. If it does not, religious freedom becomes limited to mainstream and conventional organizations.

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