The following is a guest post by Clare Feikert-Ahalt, foreign law specialist for the United Kingdom at the Law Library of Congress.
This is a post for all the Star Wars fans and aspiring Jedi out there. The Charity Commission, an independent body established under the Charities Act 2011 that is responsible for regulating and registering charities in England and Wales, recently issued a decision that rejected an application by the Temple of the Jedi Order to establish a new charitable incorporated organization to advance the religion of Jediism in England and Wales.
The Temple of the Jedi Order submitted an application under the provisions in the Charities Act to become registered as an incorporated charitable organization. It is already a registered 501(3)(c) charity in the United States. The Temple defines Jediism as
[A] religion based on the observance of the Force, the ubiquitous and metaphysical power that a Jedi (a follower of Jediism) believes to be the underlying, fundamental nature of the universe … [including] the beliefs of Jedi; 3 Tenets; the Jedi Creed; the Jedi Code; the powers, teaching and who can get involved.”
In order to become a registered charitable incorporated organization in England and Wales, the body must have a constitution, principal office in England or Wales, consist of one or more members and be for the advancement of one of the charitable purposes provided for under section 3 of the Charities Act 2011. These purposes include the advancement of religion, poverty, education, health, arts, sports, human rights, environmental protection, or animal welfare. Religion is defined further in section 3(1) of the Charities Act as “(i) a religion which involves belief in more than one god, and (ii) a religion which does not involve a belief in a god.” The charitable purpose must also be for the benefit of the public, and this benefit must be identifiable.
The application submitted by the Temple of the Jedi Order noted that the aim of establishing a charitable incorporated organization in England and Wales was:
To advance the religion of Jediism, for the public benefit worldwide, in accordance with the Jedi Doctrine … [and ] To advance such charitable purposes (according to the law of England and Wales) as the Trustees see fit from time to time.
The Charities Commission may reject an application under section 208 of the Charities Act if it is satisfied that the applicant would not be considered a charity under the provisions of the Act at the time it would be registered or if the proposed constitution of the applicant does not comply with the requirements of section 206 of the Charities Act. Applications may also be rejected if the name of the applicant charity is too similar to the name of an existing charity. In this case, the Charity Commission recognized that Jediism draws upon other recognized religions and philosophical doctrines, but it was not satisfied that the Temple of the Jedi Order was a charity for the purposes of the Charities Act. In making its decision, the Charity Commission noted that the decisions that it makes on what is a religion within the bounds of charity law “can be difficult and complex” and that it must look to see if the religion consists of a belief in a god or spiritual or nonsecular principles or things. There must be a relationship between the followers of the religion and the gods, or nonsecular principles or things, that is expressed through:
worship, reverence and adoration, veneration intercession or by some other religious rite or service. In addition, that it must be capable of providing moral and ethical value or edification to the public and characterised by a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.
When reviewing Jediism, the Charity Commission was not satisfied that it met any of the characteristics for a religion under the charity laws of England and Wales. It was concerned that Jediism consisted mostly of an online community, with online services and sermons and appeared that it could be adopted more as a lifestyle choice than a religion. It ultimately decided that it was not satisfied that the Temple of the Order of Jedi was:
… established for exclusively charitable purposes for the advancement of religion and/or the promotion of moral and ethical improvement for the benefit of the public. … [or] that the observance of the Force within Jediism is characterised by a belief in one or more gods or spiritual or non-secular principles or things which is an essential requirement fora religion in charity law. Despite being open to spiritual awareness, there is scope for Jediism and the Jedi Doctrine to be advanced and followed as a secular belief system. Jediism therefore lacks the necessary spiritual or non-secular element.
Jediism is not the first religion in recent times that has been refused charitable status in England. In 1999 the Charity Commission held that Scientology was not a religion for the purposes of English charity law as the “core practices of Scientology … do not constitute worship as they do not display the essential characteristic of reverence or veneration for a supreme being.” More recently, however, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom ruled that the church in which Scientology is practiced is a “place of meeting for religious worship” with the result that weddings may now be performed in these venues. This decision could have an impact on future decisions by the Charity Commission when it considers what a religion is for the purposes of the Charities Act.