Thursday, January 21, 2010

"Drawing a clear line between government organizations and religion

"The Supreme Court has ruled that a municipal government breached the constitutional separation of religion and state when it permitted a shrine to use a city-owned land lot free of charge.

"Nine of 14 justices in the top court's Grand Bench ruled that the practice constitutes a violation of Article 20 of the Constitution. "It should be deemed that the municipal government has done a certain religion a special favor and extended assistance to it," the ruling said.

"Article 20 prohibits the state and its organs from being involved in religious activities and from providing taxpayers' money to any religious organizations.

"The tendency of courts to loosely interpret the clause -- when they tried lawsuits over official visits by prime ministers to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, where Class A war criminals are enshrined along with the war dead, and other similar cases -- had previously appeared to have taken root.

"However, the Supreme Court put the brakes on this trend in 1997 when it declared that an Ehime governor violated the clause when he used prefectural funds to pay for a branch of a sacred tree dedicated to Yasukuni Shrine.

"The top court's latest decision should be lauded as appropriate in that it drew a clear line between government organizations and religion.

"The case involves Sorachibuto Shrine in Sunagawa, Hokkaido. A building that houses a neighborhood conference hall and the shrine was built in Sunagawa using a subsidy from the municipal government, and city authorities have allowed the shrine to use the facility free of charge. Shinto rites have been observed at the shrine during religious festivals.

"In the Ehime case, the focus of contention is the pros and cons of using taxpayers' money to buy a sacred branch dedicated to Yasukuni Shrine, the core of state-sanctioned Shinto in the pre-war era.

"On the other hand, the latest case involves the municipal government offering privileges to the local community-based shrine. Therefore, some members of the general public may raise questions about the ruling.

"In the past, Supreme Court petty benches had declared that allowing the installations of Shinto monuments and jizo, or statues of the Buddhist guardian of the Earth, on government land are constitutional.

"For these reasons, the top court explained that the maintenance of jizo and the installations of Shinto monuments are merely traditional custom rather than religious activities. However, it failed to show clear standards for what constitutes religious activities.

"In the latest ruling, the Grand Bench for the first time showed clear standards for whether providing government-owned land for religious facilities free of charge is constitutional. "It should be comprehensively judged in light of social norms, while taking into consideration the characteristics of the facilities concerned, how it was decided to provide land for the facilities, conditions for lending the land, the general public's views of the practice and various other circumstances." This should be highly appreciated.

"However, the ruling showed standards only for the provision of land for religious facilities, but stopped short of showing a universal yardstick for relations between the state and religion in general.

"Courts will continue to be required to make judgments on relations between the state and religion in various lawsuits. The Supreme Court is required to make constitutional judgments in such cases in response to the changes of the times without being bound by court precedence.

"The latest ruling ordered a high court to retry the case, and suggested that the mayor of Sunagawa can make a lease contract with the shrine or sell the facility to the shrine among other options besides ordering the shrine to move out.

"It is desirable for the local community to pursue the best possible solution through negotiations."

By Mainichi Shimbun (Editorial, 1/21/2010), Link to article (last visited 1/21/2010)

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