Marijuana church lawyer disputes Crown’s definition of a religion
By: Charles Lewis , Published National Post
Conclusions about the authenticity of the Church of the Universe reached by the Crown’s expert witness would have been laughed at by fellow academics and would never have been written by a respectable scholar, a lawyer for the church told the Ontario Superior Court on Tuesday.
“No respectable scholar would make a conclusion without speaking to a single member of the group [being assessed],” defense lawyer George Filipovic said to Katherine Young, a professor of religion at McGill University, during cross-examination.
“Yet you determined the Church of the Universe is not a religion by only reading their web site. Academics would laugh at you.”
The church, with about 4,000 members in Canada, claims its Charter rights are being violated because it is illegal to use marijuana in their religious services.
This is the first time a Canadian court has been asked to define what a religion is.
Mr. Filipovich said that Prof. Young should have at least spent some time with members of the group before attempting to write a conclusion.
She responded that there was insufficient time to do personal interviews and because of their legal status she was not sure that was possible.
On Monday, Prof. Young outlined what she considered the 10 criteria that a group would have to meet in order to be called a legitimate religion.
She warned the court at the start of her testimony that attempting to come up with a definition is an enormous problem for scholars because of the complexity of religious beliefs and the number of variables involved.
But she said from her study of major and some minor religions she was able to come up with 10 common denominators that all faiths have: a supernatural dimension, whether it be God, gods, ghosts or spirits, or an ultimate experience; a way to help people to live with such paradoxes as life and death, good and evil, and order and disorder; a source of authority from scripture or ancestral teaching or a magisterial structure like the Catholic Church; a system of symbols; sacred times, such as holy days, and sacred places, such as temples or pilgrimage routes; rituals; an ethical system and taboos; a comprehensive way of life; the ability to sustain a group, not just individuals; and an identity or tradition that can be passed from one generation to the next.
She said Church of the Universe clearly did not qualify as a true religion because it only thinly resembled a few of the 10 items on her list.
Prof. Young said she could see nothing that resembled ritual, sacred spaces or symbols, or helped its members deal with the paradoxes of life.
She said the only literature she could find was from Cannabis Culture magazine, a secular journal, and some information on a web site.
“The group raises a lot of suspicions,” she said. “It’s not clear if it’s a religion or a front [for protection against marijuana laws].”
In September 2006 two members of the Church of the Universe were arrested for trafficking pot in Toronto. Brother Peter Styrsky and Brother Sharooz Kharaghani have raised a constitutional challenge that claims the ban on marijuana violates their rights to freedom of religion under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The two men are ministers at the “G13 Mission” in Toronto — a church, an organic plant store and allegedly an illegal source of marijuana.
Mr. Filipovic said Prof. Young’s definition of religion was far too specific and many notable scholars have put forth definitions that were far broader than what Prof. Young had determined.
He pointed to William James, the author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, who wrote religion “shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider divine.”
He made mention of Sir Edward Tylor, an anthropologist, who thought religion could be boiled down to one element: a belief in a spiritual being.
Mr. Filipovic also said that at least two established religions, the Quakers and Unitarians, forego creeds, use little or no symbols, and will often meld traditions of other faiths into their worship.
He also argued that passing the faith from one generation to the next might not be a requirement. Fifteen years ago Falun Gong had no members, he said, yet today it has more than 15 million, more than such established faiths as Judaism.