by Peter W. Edge. Aldershot, Hampshire, UK, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006. 168pp. Hardback. $99.95/£50.00. ISBN: 0754630471. Paperback. $29.95/£16.99. ISBN: 075463048X.

Reviewed by Cecelia Lynch, Department of Political Science, University of California, Irvine. Email: clynch [at]


There exist multiple possible points of access between religion and law. Most religious systems are themselves legal systems, in that they presuppose codes of conduct which regulate social (and spiritual) action. They provide, at a minimum, rules and norms to guide everyday life, and at a maximum, codified rights and obligations for adherents. Moreover, many legal norms emanate from religious ethics, including those underlying Just War and natural law.

But the intersection of religion and the allegedly secular Western state (which is itself increasingly being called into question) poses a number of specific problems for social order. Peter Edge addresses a wide and interesting variety of these issues in a comparative context in this volume. He does so thoroughly and competently, by excavating and examining in detail the relevant case law in each context and for each issue. The prose is at times pedantic for the non-specialist, and the scope of the cases compared could have been clarified early on. Nevertheless, this book is a valuable, well-researched, and wide-ranging contribution to our understanding of the relationship between religion and law in contemporary Western societies.

RELIGION AND LAW compares legal systems and definitions of religion as practiced in the US, UK, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Occasionally, Edge also discusses additional cases, such as the European Union and Russia, or UN conventions. A clearer explanation and justification for the countries (and regions) included and excluded at the outset would be helpful. But Edge’s understanding of the courts in each country, their predilections and precedents, and the way in which these inform decisions regarding religion is extremely knowledgeable and helpful.

The issues and rulings that Edge explores are fascinating. His explanation of the rulings always includes a concise breakdown of the legal and religious stakes involved in the cases at hand. These often vary in the different societies examined. Two interesting issues concern property ownership and regulation of “sacred spaces,” and whether religious groups can use substances in their worship (e.g. drugs) that are illegal for the rest of a population, as well as (often) according to international conventions that restrict the use of psychotropic substances. These types of issues, as well as others, go to the core of any putative separation between religion and the state, and they always involve complex negotiations and interpretations of both religious necessity, state objectives and needs, and increasingly, interpretations of [*482] international covenants. For example, Edge demonstrates the range of positions in the US on the use of (sometimes) illegal substances by religious adherents. Courts have put restraints on the use of cannabis by Rastafarians but have made exceptions for the use of peyote in some Native American ceremonies, out of consideration of the special responsibility the US has towards its indigenous peoples. Rastafarians have also not succeeded in arguing discrimination vis-à-vis Christians who use wine in sacramental rituals. In Britain, Rastafarians’ use of cannabis has been restricted on the basis of international conventions which, according to British courts, demonstrate an international consensus in favor of preventing “public health and safety dangers” resulting from use of the substance. The way in which the courts argue for or against the use of these substances, as well as whether and how they bring in domestic histories and relationships or international norms, indicates both the limits and malleability of religious rights in contemporary liberal states.

Another pressing issue in the intersection of religion and law for international relations today concerns whether proselytizing is protected by national and international law. US and European missionaries have been expelled from various countries in Asia for promoting their religious beliefs, and argue that part of their duty as adherents of a given religion is to disseminate their beliefs to others. But this conceptualization of right inevitably runs into the right of states to preserve cultural values that might be eroded by adoption of “foreign” religious beliefs. Edge covers the tensions between human rights conceptions of the freedom to practice one’s religion, often enshrined in domestic law, with those articulating the social right to maintain a state’s or community’s social and religious heritage without external interference, in UN conventions and EU rulings.

These examples indicate only a few of the intertwining issues that Edge’s book addresses. A major strength of his work is his recognition of the complexity of the intersection between religion and law. This complexity depends in part on each country’s institutional history – whether and how its constitution incorporates religion, whether it has played a major role in supporting the transnational expansion of given religious traditions, whether its legislative bodies consider the separation between church and state to be relative or absolute. But Edge also realizes that these characteristics can evolve over time, even within given institutional parameters. We can hope that this book will spawn additional comparative work that considers the intersection between religion and law in non-Anglophone and non-First World contexts. Even more interesting will be work that compares conceptualizations of the relationship between religion and law in states that have a historical relationship as colonizers and colonized (beyond those of the UK and South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand). Edge has begun an important line of inquiry from which scholars of a number of fields, including law, political science, history, and religion, can benefit.

© Copyright 2007 by the author, Cecelia Lynch.