What Constitutes a “Legal Religion” in Miami Beach?

It is a fact of political life that some legislative bodies are more august and deliberative than others.  While the North Miami Beach City Council probably has substantial expertise and experience dealing with beach regulations and zoning, it is a fish out of water when it comes to constitutional matters involving religion.

As reported in the Miami Herald, Councilman Pinder (not to be confused with the immortal Pindar) has taken the lead:

The North Miami Beach council may issue proclamations recognizing religious holidays — but only to those who practice “legal” religions. Thomas Pinder, chairman of the city’s multicultural committee — which presented its report recommending the proclamation policy to council-members on Tuesday — said committee members were trying to be inclusive.

In his report, Pinder writes he asked the committee how the city could go about recognizing holidays fairly, “including all legal recognized religions.” Pinder clarified Thursday that he meant “legal” as opposed to religions considered to be cults or known to practice illegal acts as part of the ceremonies or worship.

I would love to see Pinder’s list of “all legal recognized religions” which do not include “religions considered to be cults.”  Unsurprisingly, he mentions Judaism and Christianity, both of which were considered to be “cults” when they originally appeared and for hundreds of years thereafter.  Designating a religion as a “cult” is code for saying you do not consider the religion to be legitimate or that it is a minority practice.

Why is North Miami Beach engaged in such ticklish constitutional business?  It has in the past recognized Jewish and Christian holidays with displays and proclamations, but not the holidays of other religions.  This prompted a protest:

In January, the multicultural committee was assigned to research ways to recognize all faiths after one Muslim resident complained major Islamic holidays like Ramadan were overlooked, while Christmas and Hanukkah were recognized. A subcommittee will be tasked to research all religions practiced by North Miami Beach residents and to identify the one main holiday that should be recognized by the council.

North Beach is fairly exclusive, but it is possible that many religions are practiced there.  If the council finds that North Beach residents practice Santeria, Scientology, Seventh-Day Adventism, Voodoo, Wicca, Satanism, or the “Religion of Jedi Knights” (an actual religion with over 400,000 members), what is it going to do?  Will the Jedi proclamation celebrate the destruction of the Death Star?  Will the display include Chewbacca?  “Luke Saves” has a certain ring to it.

On a more serious note, the ACLU’s comment certainly is correct:

“As a constitutional matter the city can’t play favorites. There are no illegal religions. If one religion is considered cultish that is not a basis to refuse them recognition,” [said ACLU spokesman] Kayton. “Once they start recognizing religious groups, I don’t see where to draw the line. It’s such a hornets nest, which is why the government should stay out of the business of recognizing religions.”

Similar problems confront genealogists (or historians) of religion.  Consider, for example, what has often been called the original religion: shamanism.  There is no religion of shamanism.  Shamanic societies do not call their beliefs and practices “religious.”  Although many scholars and laypeople think shamanic practices are “religious” because shamans deal with spirits, the supernatural, and the cosmos, this does not mean that shamanism is a coherent and essentialized set of beliefs-practices that can be slotted in the Western category of  “religion.”

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