The Temple of the Jedi Order – Is it a religious charity? Depends on where you live

February 2, 2017 | Troy McEachren

While many of us are familiar with the term “Jedi” from the much loved Star Wars films, we are less familiar with the nontheistic religious movement known as Jediism that the films have inspired. Over the past two years, an organization known as The Temple of the Jedi Order (the “TOTJO”) has been seeking recognition as a charity in the United States and as a religion in the United Kingdom.

On December 16, 2016 the Charity Commission for England and Wales issued a formal decision declining the TOTJO status as a charity in England and Wales. Basing itself on English judicial precedent, the Commission applied a definition of religion to the tenants of Jediism. The definition required a demonstration by the applicants that their belief in Jediism met a certain measurable standard.  This standard included a relationship between the adherents of the religion and the gods, principles or things, which is expressed by worship, reverence and adoration as well as being capable of providing moral and ethical value or edification to the public. The Commission held that the TOTJO lacked the necessary spiritual or non-secular element that would qualify it for charitable status.

On October 29, 2015, the Internal Revenue Service of the United States granted the TOTJO recognition as a charity in the United States. While the IRS letter gave no reasoning for its decision, the result is not surprising. In making a determination as to whether a religious organization qualifies for exemption, the IRS cannot pass judgment on the merits of the applicant’s asserted religious belief. Accordingly, proof of entitlement to exemption does not include proving the validity of the religious doctrines or beliefs of the applicant or its members. Essentially, an applicant must satisfy two enquiries: (1) does the religious organisation assert that its purposes and activities are religious? and (2) is that assertion bona fide? In U.S. v. Ballard, 322 U.S. 78 (1943), the Court stated: “The religious views espoused by respondents might seem incredible, if not preposterous, to most people. But if those doctrines are subject to trial before a jury charged with finding their truth or falsity, then the same can be done with the religious beliefs of any sect. When the triers of fact undertake that task, they enter a forbidden domain.” This position in the U.S. is not surprising given the First Amendment to the American Constitution, which prohibits the government from enacting laws establishing a religion.

The fate of any charitable application that might be made by the TOTJO in Canada is not so clear. While Canada generally follows U.K. law in the area of charities, Canada guarantees freedom of religion and conscience by way of constitutional provision. At present the definition of religion that has been applied in Canada is generally in line with the U.K. definition. The courts in Canada, however, have not yet really had to grapple with the boundaries of what “religion” means. The definition of religion under Canadian law must carefully consider the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms in an ever changing multitheistic and multicultural society.

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