Back when I was doing my master's degree in church-state studies -- during an earlier era at Baylor's J.M. Dawson Institute -- one of the hot questions was this: Legally speaking, what is a "religion" and who gets to define what is and what is not a religion?
It's an old question and there are no signs that it's going away. Take, for example, those online services that will ordain you as a minister. Does a piece of paper from such an operation mean that you have the legal protections provided to clergy? How about your tax status?
You can see related questions surface in debates about, oh, the First Church of Cannabis. Is smoking weed and seeking enlightenment a tax-exempt, protected faith activity? Well, what if the people making this drug-related claim are Native Americans and the tradition goes back for centuries?
More? How about the status of Scientology in Germany?
So how do you know you are dealing with a fake or warped religious group? What was drummed into us, in our texts and lectures, was a threefold test stating that governments have every right to investigate religious groups that appear to be linked to (a) fraud, (b) profit or (c) clear threat the life and health.
But state tax officials are going to do what tax officials are going to do, which is look for more revenue.
Back in the 1980s a Colorado official decided that church-based day-care centers were not "religious." What about a non-profit organization that existed to produce books and audio-video materials for use by missionaries? That wasn't "religious," either.
It seemed like old times reading a recent piece at The Atlantic that ran under this epic double-stack headline:
Should Courts Get to Define Religion?