The opinion of the court was delivered by: SAROKIN
Mail order certificates ordaining a person as a minister have acquired a modicum of success recently, since those certificates have been used in an attempt to avoid or reduce taxes. The religious teachings incident to such certificates were never widely held; indeed the originators undoubtedly would be amazed to learn that anyone purported to practice such "religion".
The plaintiffs in this case, however, have chosen to adopt and practice the tenets of the Universal Life Church of California. They have established their own vicinage and wish to practice this religion while confined in a state prison.
It is obvious that every time two or more prisoners join in proclaiming a new religion, they cannot and should not be permitted to hold special meetings, to solicit funds and to partake in unique or expensive diets. The establishment of a new religion while in prison must be viewed with a certain suspicion. On the other hand, one cannot rule out the possibility that the belief in such a religion and the desire to pursue its teachings are sincerely held. Furthermore, while it would be easy to mock such beliefs coupled with mail order ordination certificates, it must be recognized that adherence to religious principles may have a beneficial impact on incarcerated individuals, and therefore, should be encouraged.
Therefore the court is called upon to ponder the imponderable and define the indefinable and determine whether plaintiffs' beliefs and practices constitute a religion.
On October 5, 1978, plaintiffs George R. Jacques and Dennis Steo, who were then inmates at Trenton State Prison, instituted the present action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
Plaintiffs alleged, inter alia, that defendants, all of whom were prison officials, had denied them the right to practice their religion freely in violation of their rights under the first and fourteenth amendments. Among the activities allegedly interfered with were the collection of donations and the holding of meetings with other prisoners interested in the religion professed. Plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief and compensatory and punitive damages.
The matter was tried to a jury in July 1982. The jury was unable to determine whether plaintiffs' beliefs constituted a religion and a mistrial was declared. The parties subsequently agreed to submit this question to the court and conceded that it presented a question of law. For the reasons set forth below, the court concludes that the beliefs espoused by the plaintiffs do not constitute a religion within the meaning of the free exercise clause of the first amendment.
Plaintiffs are founders of the United Church of Saint Dennis, ULC, Inc. ["Church" or "Church of Saint Dennis"]. The Church of Saint Dennis is loosely affiliated with the Universal Life Church of California from which plaintiffs obtained mail order certificates ordaining them as ministers. The Church has registered as a charitable institution pursuant to the New Jersey Charitable Fund Raising Act of 1971. There are approximately fifteen members of the Church of Saint Dennis at Trenton State Prison.
The name of the Church was chosen arbitrarily solely as a means of identification; "Saint Dennis" refers to no particular individual, living or dead, mortal or deified. Plaintiffs deny that it was named after the plaintiff, Dennis Steo. The actual beliefs and practices adhered to by members of the Church may be summarized as follows. The Church recognizes the existence of a supernatural force or supreme being referred to as the "Spirit of Life". The Church teaches that each individual possesses a part of the Spirit of Life known as the "essence". In an explanatory pamphlet ("D-2"), Mr. Jacques has described the responsibilities and behavior expected of Church members:
We are permitted by our belief to Worship, Honor and pay Homage to the Spirit of Life according to our own individual dictates of our conscience, however, we are duty bound to practice our belief that each person has within the essense, and by treating all persons with the respect and dignity we are ourselves endowed with by the presense [sic] of the essense within, and by helping every person to attain spiritual growth, peace and a true understanding of the Spirit of Life through the performance of Good Works and Deeds, thereby bringing about a true understanding of the meaning of God to every person through practice. D-2 at 3.
Mr. Jacques writes further:
While adhering basically to the tenets advocated by the Mother Church that each individual member is free to make his peace with, honor, worship or pay homage to the Spirit of Life in any manner dictated by his conscience and relationship with the Spirit of Life, as we believe a persons relationship with his maker is a highly personal one, we do require our members to practice our belief that each person has within part of the Spirit of Life through the essence by actual practice in their every day life by treating all persons with the respect and dignity their relationship with the Spirit of Life through the essense within mandates. We also require our members to be competent, to be proficient, to be humble, to be honest, to be moral, to live positively, to be what we profess, to love our fellow man, to appreciate, to be humble and do charitable works and good deeds within the community. We believe we must live our lives according to above if we are to attain a true understanding of the meaning of the Spirit of Life, spiritual peace within and eternal unification with the Spirit of Life. D-2 at 1-2.
As indicated by these excerpts, a central tenet of the Church of Saint Dennis is the right of each individual to honor any supreme being in any manner consistent with his own conscience and to act in accordance with his individual ...