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In a wide range of circumstances religious activity and commercial activity may overlap, leading to what Edge has called “commercial religion”. While some religions with a very significant cultural footprint in the UK do not see a harmonious linkage between the commercial and the religious, others see things rather differently. The Church of Scientology, for instance, has been criticised for its provision of religious services for a fee: defended by the Church not only as a decision as to the fairest way in which to pay for the activities of the Church, but also as driven by their theology of exchange. The importance of this overlap is not limited to particular religions, however. This is a project about commercial religion, not commercial religions.
Religious practice, particularly at the level of the community of religious, is pervasively entangled with the commercial. Many religious communities employ clergy and others to carry out the religious work of the community: frequently becoming engaged with employment law and worker protection as a result. Individuals or communities will seek to select commercial services and products on the basis of religious characteristics, for instance halal food, or seek to engage in commercial exchange in a way which meets their belief commitments. Religious believers may seek products or services whose value depends upon the religious context (for instance, exorcisms or spiritual healing). Beyond transactions where the religious actor is a consumer of goods or services, however, there exist instances where the religious actor is a supplier – for instance in the provision of Church of England wedding ceremonies for a fee intended to produce an operating profit, or the sales of the Chartreuse brand of alcohol, where profits from world sales of 1.5 million bottles are used to support the work of a monastery of Catholic monks. Potential tensions between the commercial and the religious, generated as they are by two sizeable facets of UK public life, abound.
This overlap is potentially problematic to law, raising as it does the possibility of inappropriate over-regulation of religious activity and religious claims, traditionally falling within public law, and the possibility of inappropriate under-regulation of commercial activity and claims, traditionally falling within business or regulatory law. In either case, important private and public interests would be compromised.
Peter Edge is a Professor of Law at the School of Law, Oxford Brookes University. His principal research field is in the interaction of law and religion in the UK and more broadly. He is currently working on an extended project on the interaction of the commercial and the religious, with a particular focus on how the approaches taken in different areas of law can contribute to a coherent strategy for the regulation of commercial religion.
Lucy Vickers is a Professor of Law at the School of Law, Oxford Brookes University. Her research in the area of commercial religion focuses on the relationship of religious freedom with employment rights. Her work considers the extent to which religious interests are protected at work, with particular reference to the protection against religious discrimination provided by the Equality Act 2010. This includes examining the interests of religious organisations and the extent to which they are governed by equality laws.
Sarah Hayes is a research student at the School of Law, Oxford Brookes University. Her doctoral project is exploring the community use of religious precincts (her term for a place in which worship and community facing activities take place). Such use challenges religious groups with the need to respond to commercial realities in the light of doctrinal obligations and beliefs. Her current research considers commercial activities as factors in a religious group’s ability to retain control of its religious precinct. After the completion of her doctoral work, she aims to explore in more depth how different religious communities balance the issues and the impact of those decisions on the state’s ability to engage with religious communities’ resources.
Craig Allen returns to the School of Law in 2017 as a research student, having completed in LLM at University College London in 2016. He graduated from the School of Law in 2014 with a First Class LLB, as well as the Eric Kemp Prize for his essay on religious liberty and equality before the law. His project will explore the criminal regulation of religious fraud, as well as the civil regulation of undue influence in a religious context, seeking to develop a principled approach to the regulation of religious power in the context of financial exchange.
Blog of the Commercial Religion research group of the School of Law