The Force might be with them, but the Charity Commission certainly isn’t…
The Charity Commission for England & Wales has published its decision to reject an application for registration by The Temple of the Jedi Order [TOTJO] as a charitable incorporated organisation with purposes including “to advance the religion of Jediism, for the public benefit worldwide, in accordance with the Jedi Doctrine”.
According to the Commission, Jediism, as promoted by the applicants, draws not only on the mythology of the Star Wars films but also on recognised religions and other philosophical doctrines. In order to be a charity, an organisation must be established for exclusively charitable purposes for the public benefit. The list of recognised charitable purposes includes the advancement of religion and the advancement of moral or ethical improvement for the benefit of the community; and though the application was made on the basis that Jediism is a religion, the Commission also considered whether Jediism would promote moral or ethical improvement.
In relation to the advancement of religion, the Commission considered the application in line with the underlying law as currently reflected in its published guidance on the advancement of religion for the public benefit – which, it should be noted, was published in December 2008 and last amended December 2011. Since that guidance was last revised, the Supreme Court had handed down judgment in R (Hodkin & Anor) v Registrar General of Births Deaths and Marriages)  UKSC 77 in which it considered the meaning of ‘religion’ in the context of an ultimately successful application to register the Central London chapel of the Church of Scientology as a place of meeting for religious worship. The Commission took into account the extent to which Hodkin may have influenced the meaning of “religion” in charity law but concluded that Jediism was neither a religion nor promoted “moral or ethical improvement” – and rejected the application.
The key passage on the religion issue is as follows:
“13. … the Commission draws [on] the principles that religion in charity law is characterised by belief in one or more gods or spiritual or non-secular principles or things, and a relationship between the adherents of the religion and the gods, principles or things which is expressed by 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.
14. The Commission has considered TOTJO against this framework and concluded that Jediism does not meet the characteristics of a religion for the purposes of charity law for the reasons set out below.
15. Jediism is based on the observance of the Force, described as ‘the ubiquitous and metaphysical power that a Jedi (a follower of Jediism) believes to be the underlying, fundamental nature of the universe’. Jediism does not involve belief in a god but the statutory definition of religion includes religions which do not involve belief in a god. It is recognised that some religions, for example Buddhism and Jainism, do not believe in a god. The Commission considered whether Jediism is characterised by belief in a spiritual or non-secular principles or things.
16. The Jedi Doctrine states that Jedi believe ‘In the Force, and in the inherent worth of all life within it.’ The Teachings state ‘Jedi are in touch with the Force. We are open to spiritual awareness and keep our minds in tune with the beauty of the world’; and ‘Jedi believe in eternal life through the Force. We do not become obsessed in mourning those who pass. We may grieve at their passing but we are content, knowing that they will forever be a part of the Force and so always a part of us.’
17. The definition of Jediism also states ‘The Jedi religion is an inspiration and a way of life for many people throughout the world who take on the mantle of Jedi’. TOTJO acknowledges that ‘there is some scope for followers to simply view Jediism as a philosophy or way of life … Some Jedi prefer to avoid the word religion to describe their theological beliefs, ethical framework and way of life. We do not insist that members use the word religion ….’
18. Based on the proposed governing document, the evidence received in support of the application and the content of the website of TOTJO, the Commission is not satisfied 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 for a 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. The Commission noted that in Hodkin Lord Toulson did distinguish and exclude secular belief systems from the description of religion.”
In a post in 2014 we hazarded a guess that, on the basis of Lord Toulson’s description in Hodkin, “almost any reasonably systematic belief-system would count as a religion: it would certainly include Druidism, Paganism, Wicca, Ásatrú, Odinism and Shamanism, though possibly not Jedi or Pastafarianism – but who knows for certain?”
As it turns out, it seems we made the right call; however, the Commission’s guidance on the advancement of religion for the public benefit comes with the health warning:
“This guidance is currently under review. It no longer forms part of our public benefit guidance and should now be read together with our set of 3 public benefit guides. It will remain available to read until we publish replacement guidance.”
Which they haven’t – and guidance in such a complex area that was last revised in 2011 is really not good enough.
For further discussion of religion as a charitable purpose, see Robert Meakin’s post: Gilmour v Coats Revisited: a study in the law of public benefit.