Centre for Law and ReligionCentre for Law and Religion


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 public law.

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 study.

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 Staatskirchenrecht.

  • 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 instruments.


Authors: Norman Doe and Russell Sandberg

Last Updated: January 7, 2008