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Constitutional Freedoms and Defining Religion

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An ongoing court case concerning the constitutionality of a yoga program in Encinitas, Calif., schools resumed today. The plaintiffs assert that the program is inherently religious and, therefore, prohibited by the California Constitution. Their expert witness, a religious studies scholar from Indiana University, testified that the program is clearly religious because it contains elements that connect historically with things that she associates with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism and that those Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist components cannot be effectively separated from the physical practices. Such an argument, if it becomes a precedent, could have significant implications (e.g., any reference to Santa Claus is obviously religious because it derives from a commonly recognized Christian figure, Saint Nicholas), something the presiding judge reportedly inferred. Beyond the specific legal issues, this case, along with others that focus on the freedom of and from religion, illustrates the strategic application of the term "religion."

Arguments about what is and is not acceptable in public schools and other governmental setting often reflect a strategic use of the term "religion." The Secular Coalition for America, for example, asserts, "There is no evidence that the yoga activities include any express spiritual content at all," while it opposes the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance recited in schools. Thus, they emphasize belief in God as defining prohibited religious practices, when those practices are enforced by school officials. This definition contrasts with the plaintiff assertions in the Encinitas case that religious content persists, even when references to god(s) are removed. On the opposite side, OneNewsNow.com, a self-identified "Christian news service," accepts the plaintiff's assertions about the yoga program being religious. Elsehwhere, OneNewsNow.com celebrates a Texas law that allows display of religious symbols and Hannukah and Christmas greetings in public schools, while rejecting complaints about the display in schools of the Ten Commandments. This site implies that those elements that fit with their sensibilities remain acceptable, while those elements that come from outside Christianity, like yoga, are not.

People make arguments for strategic reasons, emphasizing the definitions and characterizations that promote the end result that they want, which often is the inclusion of things that they like and appreciate and the exclusion of things that they dislike and fear. Strategic use of the concept "religion" extends beyond court cases involving public schools. Declaring that a particular style of dress or accessory is "religious," whether a turban or a headscarf, gives it a protected status that trumps both uniform requirements and insincere appropriation. Responses to performers using "religious" symbols, whether Selena Gomez's bindi or Madonna's crucifix, assert a special status for those items that allow particular leaders to regulate their use.

Searching for a definitive declaration of what constitutes "religion," in many respects, is a fool's errand. Judges have the difficult decision of what constitutes protected speech and practice and what is prohibited. Their decisions often reflect strategic compromises between definitions of what counts as "religion," such as declaring a nativity display as non-religious because it promotes a holiday spirit and "commercial interests" (Lynch v Donnelly (465 US 668)).

While we often assume that the term "religion" has a definite meaning, a Platonic form, against which we can measure what is really "religious" and what is not, such a form does not exist. Like most words, the term "religion" has shifted in meaning over centuries. In the fifth century C.E., for example, to be "religious" meant to have taken vows as a monk or nun. Whether you accept a particular revelation as true or consider a ritual institution to be divinely demanded, the category "religion" is a human construction with a shifting meaning that people use strategically to make sense of the world and to negotiate relations to others in society. Understanding this allows us to focus on the strategic motives of those who employ the term at particular times, whether we agree with their assertions or not. Of course, presenting an argument strategically is also a constitutional freedom.