Indiana University Bloomington

Religion Goes to Court

How should courts decide what counts as religious and what does not count as religious? Would it be a good idea if religious studies scholars testified as expert witnesses in court to assist juries and judges? As an example, if a law gives a person an exemption from the law if that person has religious objections to the law, how does a court decide whether the objection is actually religious? Or as another, if a law prohibits government funding of religious activities, how does a court know which activities are religious and which are not?


This question was posed by Professor Winnifred Sullivan of the Indiana University Bloomington Religious Studies Department. Professor Sullivan’s work focuses on the intersection of religion and law in the modern period, the phenomenology of modern religion as it is shaped in its encounter with law, and the anthropology of law. She is currently the chair of the religious studies department in Bloomington and teaches courses on the politics of religious freedom, the trial of Joan of Arc, and contemporary theories of religion.

2 Responses to “Religion Goes to Court”

  1. Sarah Kissel

    A concept I always find myself returning to when attempting to distinguish the boundaries of the law (or the boundaries of anything, really) is intentionality. It strikes me as an impossible task for courts to interpret behavior or statements as decidedly religious or secular, that in itself being a false binary. A contemporary example that comes to mind is the issue of yoga in public schools — some people take issue because it seems like structured, curricular devotion in an arena meant to be without religion, but supporters claim that it’s not meant to be religious, and therefore isn’t. From a practical legal standpoint however, this litmus test is unsatisfying because it basically boils down to taking the individual’s word for it; only they can be the judge of their religious behavior because only they are privy to the motivations behind their words and deeds. It’s not an answer I like, but the answer seems to be connected to the individual’s intent, and therefore the individual’s testimony, rather than “proof” in the nice, neat, easily-confirmable sense.

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  2. Michael S. E. Wilson (Zeke)

    Like what Sarah was saying, “proof” or authenticity is so difficult to work with here. Especially if we consider how Indiana storefronts are technically allowed to not serve people based on their sexual orientation–you can quote “religious reasoning” all day long, even if you don not identify with a faith that rejects / does not accept any kinds of sexuality other than heterosexuality. Personal religion was a main argument used for this, in fact, and that proved very toxic and debilitating for the LGBTQ community.

    In terms of government funding for religions, I don’t know–that’s tricky because, as with a lot of private groups, I’d lean towards no? As in, religious groups should find their own funding? I think separation of Church and State is a pretty good rule of thumb here. That being said, I think religious studies scholars would be excellent aids to juries in court to help assist and navigate through complicated religious issues, acting as sources of knowledge and direction for the ins and outs of a particular religion (ideally).

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