Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Religion and the Law: The Establishment Clause and New Religious Movements

The genesis of this exhibition was an unsolicited gift from Bridge publishers, a publishing company owned and operated by the Church of Scientology, who sent libraries around the country two complete sets of the scientology books written by L. Ron Hubbard. (These books do not fit in with our acquisitions policy and thus will not be added to the library collection.) About two weeks later, news outlets began reporting on the raid of a Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saint’s (FLDS) compound called Yearning for Zion in El Dorado, Texas, by Child Protective Services. Lawyers from around Texas including some from STCL went to San Angelo to represent the children removed from the compound. These two unrelated events got me thinking about what Sociologists call New Religious Movements (NRMs) and the law. Examples of NRMs include Scientology, New Age religions such as Wicca, the Unification Church, Jehovah Witnesses, Krishna Consciousness, and extreme elements of Christian fundamentalist and Pentecostal movements (Dawson 1998, p. 580). Many NRMs are recognized religions in the United States; however there are some that are deemed cults or are splinter groups of other recognized religions. There are several areas of law in which you may encounter NRMs: as defense attorneys, prosecutors, civil rights and family practice attorneys, and even in tax law. In Cantwell v. Connecticut (310 U.S. 296), the Supreme Court stated that the Free Exercise Clause “embraces two concepts – the freedom to believe and the freedom to act. The first is absolute, but in the nature of things, the second cannot be.” (Gedicks 2005 p. 1187) The role of lawyers and the courts therefore, is not to determine if the belief is valid, but if how those beliefs are practiced is lawful. Put very simply you can believe anything you want, you just can’t do anything you want. This exhibit showcases works in the Fred Parks Law Library’s collection that discuss religious freedom and the law as well as some historical material and cases from the Special Collections holdings. It also contains loaned materials.
This exhibition is not exhaustive nor does it contain any material relating to mainstream religion (i.e. Christianity, Judaism and Islam). Please direct all questions regarding this exhibit to the Special Collections Librarian, Heather Kushnerick, at

Dawson, Lorne L. “The Cultural Significance of New Religious movements and Globalization: A Theoretical Prolegomenon.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37(4) (1998): 580-595.

Gedicks, Frederick Mark “The Permissible Scope of Legal Limitation on the Freedom of Religion or Belief in the United States.” Emory International Law Review 19 (2005): 1187-1275.