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Are questions about the legal systems of organized religions on-topic? Some organized religions have their own legal systems that have their own statutes, procedures, and laws of evidence (e.g. Roman Catholic Canon Law, the Ecclesiastical Court system of the Church of England, various courts that exist in the LDS religion, Jewish Beit Din courts, etc.). Laws often cover practical questions of the validity of conversions, rules for selecting clergy, offenses that result in excommunication, requirements for marriage, etc. that actually come up once in a while as practical cases.

The practical relevance of religious law in the day-to-day lives of followers varies dramatically - in some faiths, such as the LDS church, religious courts are common occurrences and many (if not most) followers encounter one or at least know someone who has encountered one, while in others, religious courts mostly exist in theory and are used only for the most egregious issues (my own religion has procedures for establishing a court, selecting judges, admitting evidence, issuing sanctions (mostly limited to defrocking clergy and excommunicating public heretics), etc., but, as far as I can tell, my local congregation has never seen an actual case filed in over 30 years, as most people prefer resolving issues using less formal methods instead, e.g. applying social pressure to get someone to leave rather than file formal heresy charges).

To some extent, I would imagine that questions on religious systems of law might be better asked on sites devoted to those religions (and, for example, questions on Jewish legal proceedings are on topic at Judaism.SE), but then that is not actually a legitimate reason on SE to rule something off-topic here.

Obvious pros:

  • Many religious legal systems have statutes, rules of procedure, precedent, etc. that can be analyzed in a similar manner to secular law.
  • Secular law and religious law have developed together over thousands of years and have influenced each other over time.
  • In many ancient societies, the difference between religious law and secular law was tenuous at best, or nonexistent at worst, as religion and the state were essentially one.

Obvious cons:

  • Many modern religious law systems are heavily integrated into the religions themselves and have little relevance outside of followers of that religion.
  • Questions about religious law could devolve into religious debates (e.g. your question is irrelevant because your religion is false, convert to mine please).
  • Some religions are decentralized and do not have final authorities (e.g. legislatures, supreme courts, etc.) to establish binding precedent (some do, however).
  • In religions that rely on heavily codified rules and procedures, almost any question about the religion can be rephrased as a legal question. For example, the question "Is fooing the bar permitted in Orthodox Judaism?" can be rephrased as "Is it a violation of Torah Law to foo the bar?".
  • This could lead to a lot of "Is X a sin in Y religion?" questions flooding the site.

Possible religious law questions that could be asked:

  • Is hearsay admissible in a Mormon High Council Court?
  • What are the qualifications required to be appointed as a Roman Catholic Canon Law judge?
  • May a member of the Greek Orthodox Church serve as an attorney in a case before a Church of England ecclesiastical judge?
  • Is belief in the Theory of Evolution sufficient cause to defrock an elder of Jehovah's Witnesses for heresy?
  • I found this Jewish Beit Din case from 1850. Is it valid precedent today among Lubavitcher Hasids?
  • Does the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod recognize same-sex marriage?
  • When filing a motion before the Apostolic Penitentiary in Rome, must the motion be written in Latin?
  • What defenses were available against a charge of Schism in a Roman Catholic Canon Law court in AD 1200?
  • An Anglican and a Mormon were married in a civil ceremony. They both want to convert to the Jehovah's Witnesses faith. Is their marriage recognized as valid or must they be re-married in a JW ceremony?

Obvious possible options:

  • Any and all questions about religious law are on-topic.
  • All religious law questions are off-topic.
  • Religious law questions are off-topic except to the extent that religious law is, or has been, incorporated into national law systems (for example, Shariah courts in Malaysia).
  • Religious law questions are on-topic only in cases where there is or was a strong overlap between religious or secular law, or where the law of a particular religion holds, or held, particular influence over society. For example, Catholic Canon Law in 12th century England, or Orthodox Jewish courts in Israel today. Cases in which a religion has negligible influence on how society operates are off-topic (for example, the internal policies of a small Wiccan coven operating out of a basement in Boise, Idaho).
  • The on-topicness of questions is determined by how interesting or useful they are with respect to the study of law and/or history. For example, a question involving the requirements for publishing verdicts for 14th century Catholic courts in France would probably be on-topic, while large numbers of "I found this random church in the phone book, do they allow persons with tattoos to serve as ushers?" type questions would be essentially useless and therefore off-topic.
  • Questions about religious procedural law are on-topic (e.g. rules of evidence, process for filing cases, qualifications of judges, etc.), but substantive laws (e.g. "Can you get excommunicated from X church for doing Y?") are not.
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Excellent question, and I'm surprised that it took over 2 years for this to be raised in such a substantive form!

Here are some thoughts that might help guide the site's policy on these questions:

  • "Organizational law" – i.e., rules and procedures that pertain to membership, status, and privileges in non-governmental/non-public organizations – has generally been treated as off-topic. The only on-topic questions I can think of that touch on this are those that pertain to whether an organization's rules violate public law. E.g., there are plenty of, "Can a college do this?" or "Can a church do that?" but the answer is generally, "They can do whatever they want as long as it isn't illegal (i.e., in violation of a public law)."

  • "Administrative law" – i.e., the rules and procedures that guide the actions of public agencies – has also largely been deemed off-topic. I think this can be attributed to at least the following two reasons:

    1. Even administrative entities created by and governed by public law often have wide discretion in carrying out their executive functions. For example, courts of law will generally not even adjudicate a dispute with a public agency unless a plaintiff can show an "abuse of discretion."
    2. Even when administrative entities attempt to codify their rules as one might a law, they often lack the precision and weight of law. If an entity can respond to a complaint that it broke its own "law" by saying, "Sorry, we changed our mind, here's the new rule," then the application of legal analysis to questions regarding those rules is futile.

I have a notion that the following two characteristics of a legal system are necessary (but not necessarily sufficient) for the questions relating to the system to be on-topic here:

  1. The system must govern substantive matters like life, liberty, and property. If an organization cannot deprive a person of life or liberty, or unilaterally (i.e., outside of a legally valid contract) deprive them of property, then any system of "law" it may espouse is moot.

  2. The system must have a coherent and codified system of law. I.e., questions must be amenable to (A) answers that are not primarily opinion and (B) answers that can (at least in theory) be fully supported by authoritative references.

(I am not expert in any religious law, but based on my vague knowledge it might be that Rabbinic law satisfies the second of those criteria but (no longer) the first. Sharia law, on the other hand, might in some countries satisfy both.)

  • Thanks. It's interesting, though, that your answer would probably allow questions on the Papal Inquisition (which did exert some power, albeit less than commonly believed). There could also be a legitimate debate over the cutoff date for asking historical questions about ecclesiastical law in various European countries - although ecclesiastical courts have been slowly defanged over the past few hundred years (with their powers transferred to secular courts or abolished), identifying the exact date on which each jurisdiction "finished the job" is a big task. – Robert Columbia Nov 1 '17 at 5:13
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    What about religious laws in the sense of a theocracy? The first example that comes to mind is Shariah law. – Byte11 Nov 6 '17 at 23:45
  • @Byte11 I think the idea is that Shariah law as applied to a specific country that has formally adopted it into their legal system is probably on-topic. For example, asking about Shariah courts in Malaysia would be ok, while asking a "generic Shariah" question would not be. We could allow "Do Shariah courts in Malaysia have jurisdiction to prevent someone from fooing the bar?" but not allow "Outside of any specific country, does Shariah generally, or in theory, allow fooing the bar?". – Robert Columbia Nov 8 '17 at 0:55
  • I don't quite follow the first criterion. It rather sounds like that limits the scope to only include systems of religious law that explicitly do not respect the governmental (non-religious) laws of the land—wouldn't it? – Wildcard Dec 3 '18 at 20:21
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    @Wildcard: No, for example Rabbinic law was the "law of the land" at various points in history, but presently is nowhere – hence not on-topic at present. I.e., it doesn't matter what a Rabbinic counsel declares: It can't deprive a person of life, liberty, or property without that person's consent. If, however, some government of consequence decides to adopt Rabbinic law – in the sense that it would enforce, or make it legal to enforce, Rabbinic decrees – only then Rabbinic law could be on-topic here. – feetwet Dec 3 '18 at 21:50
  • @feetwet, just a thought experiment for you: if a truly Libertarian society were established which required people to sign a contract to enter, such that the contract was valid under usual laws and effectively required the person to agree to the arbitration methods and justice system within the Libertarian society, or else be exiled from it—and if the society were to have no death penalty, and no penalties requiring physical incarceration, and no confiscation of property but perhaps the levying of monetary fines—it would indeed be the "law of the land" but would not fit your first criterion. – Wildcard Dec 3 '18 at 22:04
  • @Wildcard: Well this is taking my heuristics pretty far, but what you describe might be called a "lawless society." And if there are no laws, Law.SE wouldn't have much to say. – feetwet Dec 4 '18 at 0:09
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I specially agree with Feetwet's point 2 as a necessary characterization of "law", although given that SCOTUS decisions are often decided on a highly contradictory 5-4 vote basis, some clarification as to the nature of "coherent" is called for. When a government recognizes the authority of a religious court in some sphere, there too the question "is it law?" should clearly be answered in the affirmative. (E.g. marriage laws in India and Israel).

I hesitate to reduce the matter to being a question of whether the government will ultimately use force to impose the decisions of a tribunal. Legal principles and methods are used in courts for reaching decisions based on some statements (terms in a contract, statutes and statute-like objects); arbitration is the same, except that it isn't done by the government, so an arbitration board cannot directly order that force be applied. Since I take the subject matter of Law SE to be the logical principles that lead to a judgment, I would not exclude discussion of arbitration on the grounds that it is not undertaken by government actors (though it may ultimately involve governmental force).

From that perspective, Jewish law (for certain) and Sharia law would be examples of legal systems where one can coherently ask questions. I do think that such questions are not as likely to receive well-informed answers, but that is also true of questions about Indonesian or Lithuanian law.

Regarding Feetwet's first clause, clarification of the terms "liberty" and "property" are probably essential. A university cannot arbitrarily rescind a person's degree, because the person has a property right to that degree. Similarly, one may have a property right to an inheritance. The concept of "property right" could also be applied to "being in the church", and concepts of liberty may also apply to marriage.

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    A religious court may have powers that affect a person's eternal fate after death; it certainly has the power to have an offender rejected by the society in which he moves. I think 'liberty and property' is too wide to be a helpful. – Tim Lymington Nov 5 '17 at 12:13
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    Also, even in non-theocratic countries, religious rules can, to some extent, affect rights. For example, most religious groups in the USA have the ability to perform legally valid marriages. If you want to have a Jewish wedding in Brooklyn, you may need to satisfy whatever religious rules have been set by the applicable synagogue. The fact that you have the legal right to choose instead a secular marriage before a justice of the peace is tangential. The fact that I am legally permitted to walk to Memphis does not mean that Tennessee motor vehicle law has no relevance to anyone. – Robert Columbia Dec 19 '17 at 12:18

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