sealPurdue News

April 1996

Courts could stifle new religious sects

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- An increase in court cases challenging religious freedom could put a damper on the growth of new religions, predicts a Purdue University sociologist.

Roger Finke, professor of sociology, says small sects rather than mainstream religions are most likely to suffer from increased litigation because of the cost and damaging publicity. "The threat of regulation could hamper the operation of any church, but the heaviest burden will fall on the small, nonconventional and politically powerless religions," he says.

Finke is co-author of a forthcoming book chapter, "Forward to the Past: Predictions for the Future of American Religion," with Ralph Pyle, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Nevada, Reno. They based their predictions on historical trends.

Before 1940 few cases involving religion reached the U.S. Supreme Court. But during that decade several landmark cases made it clear that religious freedom issues would be heard by the nation's highest court, Finke says. In Cantwell vs. Connecticut (1940), for example, the Supreme Court ruled that Jehovah Witnesses who went door to door could not be charged a soliciting fee, as required by Connecticut state law, because it restricted their religious freedom.

By the 1980s, however, small religious movements came under increasing attack in the courts, reaching a peak in 1990 with Smith vs. Oregon, Finke says. The case involved two members of the Native American Church who were fired from their jobs for misconduct and denied unemployment compensation because they used peyote, a drug derived from the agave plant, in a religious ceremony. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the two were not entitled to compensation because the free exercise of religion covered by the First Amendment still allows a state to forbid the use of peyote in a religious ceremony.

"Smith vs. Oregon caused concern for small minority religions that freedom they had taken for granted previously could be threatened," he says. "The case served as a note of caution to minority religious sects."

Pyle wrote the report with Finke while working on his doctorate at Purdue. The report became a chapter in a book, "Prophetic Religions, Mobilization, and Social Action in the Twenty-First Century," to be published within the next year by Praeger Publishers.

CONTACT: Finke, (765) 494-4715; home, (765) 497-9827; Internet,

Pyle, (702) 784-6647; home, (702) 828-2403; Internet,

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