Holy Granola?

 Elesha Coffman

What do kundalini yoga, Cranberry Acai Granola, the Department of Homeland Security, Henry VIII, and the First Amendment have in common? All of these elements factored into a recent Oregon court case addressing the finances and leadership of Sikh Dharma International (SDI). I don't typically write on any of these subjects, but an old friend of mine happened to be involved in the litigation, and he passed along copies of some briefs and findings. They proved to be fascinating reading, raising a host of questions about religious freedom, the boundaries of secular and sacred, and the status of minority religions in the U.S.

Sikh Dharma was founded by Yogi Bhajan in the early 1970s. A combination of yoga and Sikhism with New Age overtones, it was popular with hippies and has continued to attract American converts. It has also made quite a bit of money. In addition to providing yoga instruction and other kinds of spiritual guidance, Yogi Bhajan launched or became involved with what the judge in the Oregon case called "a Russian nesting doll of nonprofit and for-profit entities" designed to provide employment for Sikh Dharma followers and revenues for SDI. One of these entities, Golden Temple, Inc., sells books and DVDs, personal care products, and the aforementioned Cranberry Acai Granola. Another entity, Akal Security, Inc., had at the time of a 2004 New York Times article $1 billion in federal contracts to "protect vital and sensitive government sites." Compounding this complicated picture, Yogi Bhajan (again quoting the judge) "maintained personal attendants, a group of women upon whom he became dependent for day-to-day and hour-to-hour support and companionship in his home as his health declined toward death from complications of diabetes and kidney failure." When the yogi died in fall 2004, power struggles ensued involving his widow, persons running the various nonprofit and for-profit entities, and the personal attendants, who had been paid modestly during the yogi's lifetime but promised life-long compensation afterward.

At one turn in this labyrinthine story, assets were transferred among some of the nested entities in ways that allowed a few players to profit while keeping other players out of the loop and out of the money. Aggrieved parties then looked to the legal system for relief--including a request to strip the dirty dealers of their leadership positions and appoint others to take their places. Here the references to Henry VIII and the First Amendment came to bear. Among the questions raised by the court, by my lawyer friend, and in my own mind:

Should the U.S. court system be involved in deciding who runs Sikh Dharma organizations? No. Even if we were talking about regular businesses with no connection to a religious group, it would be highly unusual for a court to replace trustees. Because we're talking about entities affiliated with SDI, which states as  part of its primary mission "to preserve, organize and continue to share the teachings of the Sikh Gurus," the court has no place to depose or install leaders. Congress shall make no law establishing religion or preventing its free exercise, after all.

But what if the wrongdoers were, say, in charge of the granola business. What's religious about that? Possibly not much, or possibly a whole lot. SDI would hardly be the first group to consider food a central part of its religious mission or practice. Much more on this in the forthcoming The Way of Food: Religion and Eating in North America.

Legally, it doesn't seem to matter. Henry VIII (named in the legal briefs!) used financial mismanagement by monks as a rationale for seizing control of monasteries, but his ulterior motives were clear, and in any event, we don't live in Tudor England. More to the point, according to the important Hosanna-Tabor case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012, religious organizations must be given leeway to hire and fire their own leaders. To quote a brief in the SDI case, "Religious leaders are human, subject to the same frailties and temptations as the rest of the race, and there will be times when they misuse the positions with which they have been entrusted. Where such improprieties occur, it may well be that the guilty leaders must go. Under our constitutional scheme, however,  that decision is for the community, not a secular court."

How would this discussion be different if the religious group were more mainstream? The outcome of the case probably wouldn't be different at all. Business concerns, rather than religious ones, dominated most of the legal documents. Also, the related Hosanna-Tabor case involved a Lutheran (ELCA) church and school, which is definitely mainstream. Nonetheless, as I read through the documents, the names of the various organizations involved--Unto Infinity, LLC; KIT-BV (a tea business); Golden Temple, Inc.; the Siri Singh Sahib Corporation; and others--struck me very differently than the more familiar names of churches, hospitals, or rescue missions would have. I'm back to the question of how religious a granola company might truly be.

Matthew Hedstrom states in his introduction to The Rise of Liberal Religion, "In material ways that go beyond adherence to broad cultural norms, participation in religious and spiritual life happens through commodities bought and sold." I'm not convinced of this as a universal principle, or, at least, I can think of many ways that the liberal Protestants of whom Hedstrom writes participated in religious life aside from buying or selling anything. The statement seems more true, however, when applied to SDI. Does this mean that SDI is somehow "less religious" than liberal Protestantism? Or does it just mean that commercial--and, potentially, legal--entanglements are easier to see in religious traditions outside the mainstream? Probably the latter. I think I'll try mentally placing "Inc" or "LLC" after the names of the religious entities I study and see if I notice things I missed before.


Mark T. Edwards said…
Great reflections and questions here, Elesha, thanks.
This is fascinating; thanks for sharing. But a question. The crucial issue in Hosanna-Tabor was that the ECLA school in question had in some fashion deaconized or ordained its teachers through training and certification. This was why the court refused to intervene--and why even Kagan and Alito surprisingly weant to great lengths to argue in their concurring opinion that the single defining factor were the church's designation of H-T teachers as ministers. Does SDI present its business owners the same way? Or are they religious members who pragmatically/logistically appointed to their position. If the latter the case could get really interesting cause you could argue H-T doesn't apply........
Elesha said…

I don't know to what extent Hosanna-Tabor was decisive in this case. SDI lawyers did lean on it, but they made other arguments as well, for example:

"Of course, the difficulty of plaintiff's proposed process [of replacing leaders] would be greatly magnified by the fact that this Court would be required to make a series of difficult, discretionary decisions within the hardly hospitable context of a bitter intra-religious schism. As the State acknowledges, with no existing mechanism in place to reconstitute the YB-inspired community and its leadership, at each step along the way this Court would have to fashion its own procedures. Those procedural decisions will inevitably be intertwined--or at the very least would be perceived to be intertwined--with the community's religious, moral and philosophical principles. The constant entanglement that would result weighs strongly in favor of this Court's exercising its discretion to deny the requested governance-related relief, even without reaching the constitutional issues discussed below."

The case is over now. What actually happened (as best I understand) was that the SDI leaders won--the court did not intervene to oust them--but were then replaced anyway as part of a subsequent settlement. I haven't seen the text of any final ruling, so I don't know if a judge applied Hosanna-Tabor reasoning or something else. The question of whether SDI "ordained" its leaders, or whether they qualified as "ministers" (or equivalents to either of those categories), may never have come up.
Thanks, Elesha. The SDI's lawyers statement does convey that this is a much messier case than the issues H-T case. Again, thanks for sharing. This is fascinating.