Rogue One: A Star Wars Story has now grossed more than $500 million worldwide, with nearly $30 million coming in from ticket pre-sales alone. The newest installment in the Star Wars film universe is notable for lacking any Jedi Knights, the Force-wielding spiritual-political priesthood of George Lucas’ far, far away galaxy. And now news out of the United Kingdom reveals that that country’s government has denied real-life Jedi practitioners charitable status.
Ruling that the Temple of the Jedi Order “lacks the necessary spiritual or non-secular element” that would qualify it for charitable status, the UK Charity Commission instead called the self-styled followers of Jediism an “entirely web-based organization [and] predominantly, if not exclusively, an online community.” Members of the Temple, on the other hand, consider themselves a “church and international ministry,” not a Star Wars fan-group: “The Jedi here are real people that live or lived their lives according to the principles of Jediism,” which they define as a commitment to “Peace, Justice, Love, Learning and Benevolence.” The Temple of the Jedi consider their broad appeal an advantage: “It is unlikely that the Jedi way conflicts with other beliefs and traditions.”
But the Charity Commission pointed to this same trait as a liability. “The commission does not consider that the aggregate [beliefs of the Temple of the Jedi] amounts to a sufficiently cogent and distinct religion.”
The kerfuffle over Jediism brings to mind some of the differences between the American and British charitable landscapes. According to numbers from 2014, American nonprofits contributed some 5.5% to the national GDP, while in Britain that number was closer to 0.8%; in the US nonprofit employees make up 9.2% of the workforce, while in the UK they account for just about 2.6%. The British tax system is structured very differently from its American counterpart. Charitable tax deductions don’t exist as such in the UK; instead registered charities qualify for “Gift Aid,” which adds a government-funded bonus to any private donation (currently about 25 pence per pound sterling donated). These structural differences point to deeper distinctions between American and British attitudes towards philanthropy, the social safety-net, and the role of civil society.
In America the Temple of the Jedi Order is a public tax-exempt 501(c)3 charity eligible for the benefits of that status. This perhaps isn’t so surprising considering the First Amendment’s prohibition on government infringement on religion, which keeps the state from denying public status based on theological cogency, as the UK Charity Commission did in this case. The Internal Revenue Service’s statutory regulations stipulate that, “In making a determination whether a religious organization qualifies for exemption under IRC 501(c)(3), the Internal Revenue Service cannot pass judgment on the merits of the applicant’s asserted religious belief.” This is in line with the Supreme Court’s 1952 ruling in Zorach v. Clausen that the government’s duty in granting exemption is to "make room for as wide a variety of beliefs and creeds as the spiritual needs of man deem necessary." In Britain, a country that still maintains a state-funded church, attempts to determine theological legitimacy need not tread so gingerly.
It’s an interesting feature of American civil society, one which separates us even from our close cultural cousins across the pond: Charities and non-profits in America are by definition those organizations and groups that make up the vague and amorphous “middle ground” between the state and the individual. Whether those groups are devoted to curing cancer or preaching Jediism, they’re given a spot at the table in hopes that they may somehow contribute to a more vibrant culture. In Britain, an idea of civil society—including the role it plays and the benefits it brings—seems to precede the groups that comprise it, and thus the barrier to entry is set higher.
Both approaches have their advantages and liabilities. But for now, if the Jedi are looking to expand their reach, they would do better to focus their efforts on this side of the Atlantic.