How do you make a religion "official" in the eyes of the law? Is it even necessary?

Let’s say I have a set of beliefs that I adhere to strictly and I would like to back 'em up with the weight of a (made-for-the-purpose) religion. Saying “I don’t do this because I don’t agree with it”, unfortunately, just doesn’t seem to garner the same respect from people as saying “I can’t do this because of my religion” – at which point they’ll usually go “Oh, sorry!” and shut up.

So if none of the existing religions fits this particular set of beliefs 100% and I wanted to start one, is there some process by which I can make it more legitimate in the eyes of employers, the US government, and other entities which are required to adhere to non-discrimination policies?

Example: Muslims at Gitmo are given time and materials to pray their way. I doubt they’d be given the same privilege if they simply declared “We as a group demand to kneel and face a certain direction at certain times of the day because we think it’s the right thing to do.”

Phrased another way: It seems that “personal beliefs and behaviors” have no weight on their own, but once the word “religious” replaces “personal”, suddenly people are afraid of trespassing upon those beliefs. Is there an actual process (applications for a new religion? IRS forms?) by which this can be legitimized, or is it more a matter of seducing enough followers to have mainstream acceptance and clout (a la Mormonism, Adventism, Scientology, Universal Unitarianism, etc.)?

I don’t have an answer for this, but I believe there are, in fact, rules about the religion being “organized” meaning I assume a group (who knows how big) of people and “rules” that can be documented.

This has always bothered me as separation of church and state ought to mean, in my opinion, that the state doesn’t get to define what a religion is. Of course this means no special tax exemption for churches (though they would presumably get non-profit status). Donations to churches would be deductible to the extent they used them for charitable work.

But this is GQ so I’ll not go into this more. Awaiting answers.

You can find a huge body of case law on this kind of thing, with cases relating to workplace accommodation, pacifists who were drafted and religious purpose for drug use or butchering practices. The answer might even depend on which state you’re in.

Overall, what you have to prove is that it really is a religious belief and not your personal way to get out of a law that you don’t like. You have to be able to convince a judge and/or jury that you really aren’t in it for a personal or selfish belief. To that extent, having lots of other followers certainly helps, but that won’t be the only criteria. If your new religion commands you to smoke pot, but you smoked pot before you converted, that weakens an argument that you smoke it for religious purposes.

The IRS and the states do have specific rules to register and report as a nonprofit and/or a charity. Not following those can get you and/or your contributors in trouble whether you have a legitimate religion or not, but that process is not related to legal protection for religious practices.

An interesting question and one that the High Court of Australia dealt with in Church of the New Faith v Commissioner of Pay-Roll Tax (Vic) (1983) 154 CLR 120. This was the case where the Scientologists sought recognition as a religion to gain exemption from payroll taxes.

The HCA allowed the appeal. It recognised that no single characteristic could be laid down that would constitute a formularised legal criterion of whether a particular system of ideas and practices constitutes a religion. Some or all of the following criteria were considered helpful:

  • belief in the supernatural, i.e. a reality extending beyond that which is capable of perception by the senses;
  • ideas relating to man’s nature and place in the universe and his relation to things supernatural;
  • acceptance of these ideas by followers;
  • requirement or encouragement to observe particular standards or codes of conduct or to participate in specific practices having supernatural significance;
  • existence of an identifiable group or groups;
  • belief on the part of the adherents themselves that their ideas and/or practices constitute a religion.