Balancing law and religion is a challenge throughout the world.
It is widely assumed that a well-designed and well-implemented constitution can help ensure religious harmony in modern states. Yet how correct is this assumption?
Dr Benjamin Schonthal’s latest book Buddhism, Politics and the Limits of Law: The Pyrrhic Constitutionalism of Sri Lanka argues for another possibility.
Dr Schonthal argues that when it comes to religion, relying on constitutional law may be harmful; constitutional practice may give way to pyrrhic constitutionalism. Drawing on groundbreaking research from Sri Lanka the book explains why constitutional law has deepened, rather than diminished, conflicts over religion in Sri Lanka.
Examining the roles of Buddhist monks, civil society groups, political coalitions and more, the book provides the first extended study of the legal regulation of religion in Sri Lanka as well as the first book-length analysis of the intersections of Buddhism and contemporary constitutional law.
You can find out more about the book and purchase it online.
An excerpt from the book:
Courtrooms are not places that one expects to see Buddhist monks, which is why visitors to Sri Lanka are often surprised by newspaper images of saffron-robed men filing into or out of the island’s courts of law. Although not an everyday occurrence, Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka visit courtrooms regularly, and for a variety of reasons. They attend hearings, give evidence and make civil suits. They file writ petitions and, on rare occasions, even face criminal charges.
Visitors are not the only ones unsettled by the appearance of monks in court. For litigants, lawyers and judges, the presence of monks in Sri Lankan courtrooms can also generate unease due to an anticipated clash between civil and religious norms. Sri Lanka’s rules of civil procedure require that all persons seated in a courtroom stand up when a judge enters. Yet Buddhist texts and customs (which are specially protected by Sri Lanka’s constitution) dictate that monks should never rise to greet non-monks – judges included. Therefore, when Buddhist monks go to court, a dilemma ensues: Do monks stand for judges or do judges stand for monks? Do civil or Buddhist norms prevail?
Sri Lanka’s lawyers are aware of the clash and take steps to avoid it. When representing Buddhist monks, lawyers delay their clients’ entry into courtrooms until after judges have taken their seats at the bench. In Sri Lanka today, virtually all cases involving Buddhist monks employ this tactic. Rather than addressing the normative clashes directly, lawyers elect to avoid them by substituting one lapse in protocol (not standing) with another (arriving late).