Abstract: Sacred Land and Secular Concerns: When the Archangels Disregard Zoning By- Laws

To be presented in at the Association for the Sociology of Religion’s 81st Annual Meeting, “Engaging Religion in a Contested Age”.

In the developing post-industrial world, many new religions exhibit a deep attachment to nature. The Essene Church, a new religious community established in Cookshire, in Quebec, Canada, is one such example. Most Essenes live in secluded “Essene villages” in order to realize their vision of “sacred ecology,” a form of ecology that is concerned with the divine character of nature and humans’ spiritual connection to it. The Essenes are currently engaged in litigation with the municipality of Cookshire over the zoning by-laws governing the land on which they have established their village. Whereas the municipality insists that the land is only suitable for agriculture and must be protected from urban development, the Essenes maintain that general laws should not apply to their case since the land is their monastery, which was established at the request of the Archangels.

This paper explores the relationship between the Essenes beliefs, lifestyle, and legal troubles with the municipality. Drawing on ethnographic data collated at the Essene village of Cookshire, I address the issue of freedom of religion in relation to the land, taking as a point of departure the lived, communal religious experience of the Essenes. I argue that, in a context where the protection for freedom of religion is claimed for a religious group that has non-traditional beliefs and adopt a communitarian lifestyle, so-called “neutral” state norms such as zoning by-laws have a higher potential to interfere with freedom of religion, since secular authorities would consider unconventional religious beliefs and practices as conflicting with the aims of the liberal democratic state. Using examples from Canadian jurisprudence, I illustrate how, in a contested age, only particular understandings of religion can enjoy full freedom when secular and sacred worldviews are placed in competition.