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Dynamics of Accommodation: Law and Religion in Contemporary Western Societies

Panel Chair: Werner Menski | Friday, August 28, 3:30-5:30 p.m. | Venue

Over the past few decades, state courts had to deal with an increasing number of cases that involved religious issues. At the same time, legal responses to the demands of religious groups have come under public scrutiny. This negotiation process between state law and religion(s) concerns almost all aspects of individual life, such as clothing (burqa ban) and the integrity of the body (circumcision), but also the (legal) status of religious groups as corporate entities. It challenges legal frameworks that are often built amidst specific historical conditions that did not reflect the religious plurality that modern states face today. As a result, both the law and religions find themselves undergoing change, adaption, seclusion and contestation. This panel explores the tension between the objectives of state law and the interests of religious communities by bringing together researchers from legal studies, anthropology and religious studies.

Martin Ramstedt

Translating Buddhism into Different European Normativities: The Case of the Shaolin Europe Association

In 2010, the UNESCO accorded the status of “world heritage” to the Songshan Shaolin Temple in the Province of Henan (People’s Republic of China) as part of a whole series of monuments comprising both sacred and secular sites. Far from taking issue with the ensuing reordering of monastic life along secular lines, the abbot of the Shaolin temple, the Venerable Shi Yong Xin, has continued to lobby for the official recognition of his monastery’s “Shaolin Chan Culture” as “intangible heritage”. Already back in 1999, Shi Yong Xin, had founded some institutions that have fostered his endeavor, inter alia the Shaolin Europe Association. The paper argues that the cultural translation of the Shaolin Chan Culture into different—spiritual and secular—European normativities has not only supported the international branding of the Shaolin martial arts. It has also rendered Shaolin’s international image more compatible with the criteria of the respective UNESCO program.

Markus Klank

The Long Way to Recognition: On the legal status of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany

In March 1990, after more than 40 years of repression, Jehovah’s Witnesses became officially recognized as a licit religion by the former government of the German Democratic Republic. Following the German reunification in October 1990, Jehovah’s Witnesses asked the state of Berlin to confirm that their official status has now been changed to the privileged status of a corporate body under public law. This initiated a complex legal dispute that engaged different legal authorities for years. After 15 years, Jehova’s Witnesses were finally granted this legal status in the state of Berlin but they have not succeeded yet in all German states. This paper focuses on the impact of a decade-long legal dispute on the religious community of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany and how it affected their internal approach to (state) law. It also raises the question if or in how far legal settings transform religious groups and vice versa.

Mareike Riedel

A Matter of Faith or Birth? Jewish Pluralism as a Challenge for State Law

The entangled nature of religion and ethnicity is a central feature of Judaism. The question ‚Who is a Jew?’ has always been a subject of halakhic debate and is answered differently within the various streams of Judaism. What appears on first sight to be an internal religious matter has occasionally engaged secular courts like the UK Supreme Court regarding the admission policy of a Jewish school. This paper draws on several case studies in a comparative way to assess how state courts addressed the competing understandings of Jewish identity and how they tried to make sense of its hybrid nature within legal categories of religion, ethnicity and nationality. This paper argues that the concept of ‚Jewish identity’ transcends western legal categories that are built upon a particular understanding of religion. Such an understanding risks not only imposing certain notions and criteria of religion but also restricting the freedom of religion for minority religions such as Judaism.


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