This is not funny: Does the state have the right to call some faiths 'real' and others 'fakes'?

Back in my Denver dedace, I turned into a solid Denver Broncos fan.

That’s normal, of course, in Colorado. Following the Broncos was like, well, a RELIGION or something.

That’s precisely what I argued in a memo to the editor in 1988, when I argued that I should be part of the Rocky Mountain News team that was sent to cover the Broncos at the Super Bowl. I made a kind of sociological argument that, if Bronco fans were not practicing a religion of some kind, then the Denver area didn’t have a religion.

I didn’t win that argument. Then, during the media-fest preceding the game, this happened (as covered by the New York Times):

Most of the Denver Broncos and the Washington Redskins will join Saturday in a prayer meeting that is believed to be the first to bring together National Football League players from opposing teams on the eve of any game - much less a Super Bowl.

The meeting has created a sensitive situation. Front-office executives of both clubs are reportedly against the joint meeting, which they feel could diminish the competitive fervor the teams should take into such an important game.

John Beake, the Broncos' normally expansive general manager, was abrupt when asked about it this morning. 'Can't Say Anything'

''I can't say anything about it,'' he said, and told the caller to speak to the club's news media relations director, Jim Saccomano.

Yes, the editor asked me (still back in Denver) to dive in an help with coverage of this controversy.

In a way, this subject — broadly defined — is what host Todd Wilken and I talked about during this week’s Crossroads podcast. (Click here to tune that in.) What is a “religion”? Who gets to decide what is a ”real” religion and what is a “fake” religion?

The news hook for this discussion was Gannett Tennessee Network coverage of a new state law that would ban wedding ceremonies being conducted by people who have been ordained through online sites that hand out ordination certificates after a few clicks of a mouse. Here’s the GetReligion post on that.

Needless to say, the lawyers linked to the Universal Life Church Monastery website are not to crazy about that and they are saying that this law violates their First Amendment-protected freedom to practice their religious convictions.

This conflict is serious business, in terms of church-state law, even though online ordinations may lead to laughs on late-night television and in other settings.

But think about it: What if UK Star Wars fans really want to create a Jedi religion? See this Telegraph story from a few years ago:

… Census figures show that 176,632 people in England and Wales identify themselves as Jedi Knights, making it the most popular faith in the "Other Religions" category on the Census and the seventh most popular faith overall.

Real religion? Fake religion?

How about the Boston Red Sox? Religion? Cult?

How about the newborn Church of Kannabis here in Tennessee? Is that different than Native American elders wanting to use peyote in sacred rites that have existed for centuries?

Here’s a really serious example — the conflict between the Church of Scientology and government leaders in Germany. Here’s a long, instructive chunk of a piece in The Tablet about that clash a few years ago. Yes, you know that superstar Tom Cruise would be mentioned in this.

… Germany broke new ground when, in 1992, the city of Hamburg set up a “Scientology Task Force” to monitor the group, assist members who have left the Church and are thus cut off from their families, and discourage citizens from joining it in the first place. (That office, which maintained a vast and extensive archive of official Scientology documents, many of them classified by the Church, was closed due to government budget cuts in 2010.)

The former head of the Task Force, Ursula Caberta, has labeled Cruise “an enemy of [the German] constitution” and has not so subtly likened the Church to the Third Reich, calling it a “totalitarian organization that seeks to control everybody else, a dictatorship.” Hers is a view that an overwhelming number of Germans seem to share: A 2007 poll found that 74 percent favor banning Scientology. The German equivalent of the FBI, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (the Bundesamt für Verfassungshutz, or BfV), has been monitoring Scientology since 1997. On the BfV’s homepage, Scientology is listed alongside “Right-wing extremism,” “Islamism,” and “Espionage” as one of its focus areas. (The Hamburg government has even printed pamphlets warning about the dangers of Scientology in Turkish for the country’s sizable Turkish minority.)

Contrast this response to the attitude toward Scientology in the United States, where the Church, though largely seen as a celebrity curiosity, is a tax-exempt, legally recognized religious faith.

So is this whole “religion” thing just a legal free-for-all?

No, the Internal Revenue Service is highly interested in the topic, as I mentioned in my earlier piece. Here is the crucial section of a what-is-a-church typology posted by the IRS.

As stated in IRS Publication 557 “[b]ecause beliefs and practices vary so widely, there is no single definition of the word ‘church‘ for tax purposes.” Rather, the IRS considers the following fourteen factors under a “facts and circumstances” test:

• a distinct legal existence;

• a recognized creed and form of worship;

• a definite and distinct ecclesiastical government;

• a formal code of doctrine and discipline;

• a distinct religious history;

• a membership not associated with another church or denomination;

• an organization of ordained ministers;

• ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed studies;

• a literature of its own;

• established places of worship;

• regular congregations;

• regular worship services;

• Sunday schools for religious instruction of the young; and

• schools for the preparation of ministers.

Although no single factor is controlling, and having all 14 (or even one) is not necessary, the IRS is unlikely to recognize an organization as being a church unless it has a number of these characteristics.

Reporters need to read this and file it away for future use, because this topic will keep coming up. Who said the religion-news beat is a tame job?

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