The Relevance and Study of Law & Religion
Like other major institutions in society, both groups and private
individuals with religious convictions function within a legal framework.
Furthermore, the lives of these religious organisations and their
members are often facilitated and regulated by a complex system
of rules, which are created not only by religious organisations
themselves but also by the State.
In the mediŠval period, the law of the western Christian Church
was studied in the Canon Law faculties of the major European universities,
who awarded degrees in Canon Law to their graduates. The English
Reformation of the sixteenth century involved the dissolution of
the canon law faculties of both Oxford and Cambridge and put an
end to such study in England and Wales. Nevertheless, religion and
canon law have been fundamental to the development of both the common
law and the civil law traditions, especially in the field of marriage
and family law, as well as in criminal law, trusts, contract and
In more recent years, there has been in the United Kingdom a renewal
of interest in the law relating to churches and other religious
organisations. This has resulted, in the last decade, in an increase
in cases involving religious groups entertained by the courts, in
a growing literature on law and religion, in university courses
on the subject, and in the development of societies devoted to its
The subject of law and religion may itself be conceived in a number
of different ways.
First, it involves the study of state law applicable to religious
organisations: in the European tradition this is known as Ecclesiastical
Law; and in Germany the discipline is known conveniently as
Secondly, it involves the study of the internal rules of religious
organisations, some of which operate systems of canon law with
respect to their governmental, ministerial, doctrinal, ritual
and proprietorial activities.
Thirdly, it has a strong comparative dimension: comparison
of the ecclesiastical legal systems of different states; the
relationship between state law and the laws of religious groups;
and relationships between the internal laws of religious organisations.
Fourthly, it is an inter-disciplinary subject, involving both
religious and legal concepts as well as the operation of different
branches of public and private law and international human rights