After George tells Kramer that the carpet cleaners he hired will clean his entire apartment for only $25, Kramer tells him that the cleaning company, The Sunshine Carpet Cleaners, are a crazy religious cult that use their cleaning services as a front to get into people’s apartment and brainwash them. Legally speaking, is The Sunshine Carpet Cleaners a religion? A cult? Neither?
While The Supreme Court has, at times, ventured into determining what is a religious belief and what isn’t, the Court has never delivered a concrete definition of religion. This is likely grounded in the long standing American tradition of separating religion from State governance, and the strong wording of the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that protects against Government making any law establishing or prohibiting religion.
Nevertheless, the Court has weighed in on religion on some occasions. It defined religion narrowly in the late 19th century as being a person’s relationship with the Creator and “of obedience to his will,” but later provided a more expansive understanding of religion in the conscientious objector cases during the Vietnam era. Those cases conceived of religion as being any “sincere and meaningful belief which occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by the God” for those who practice traditional faiths, which was later expanded to any belief grounded in a “moral, ethical, or religious principle” rather than one based on “policy, pragmatism, or expediency.” More recently, the Court has added an additional element to it’s understanding of what is a religion by saying that the belief must be compatible with an ordered society and that an adherent’s belief must come from “deep religious conviction, shared by an organized group, and intimately related to daily living.”
Given The Supreme Court’s writings on religion, it seems pretty plausible that The Sunshine Carpet Cleaners are in fact a religion. Mr. Wilhelm’s prayer that “I’m here to clean the carpets. Most of the world is carpeted. And, one day, we will do the cleaning,” is said with the conviction of a believer, and this tenant of the faith certainly seems to come more from morality and ethics than it does from policy or pragmatism. Additionally, the cleaners are an organized group and cleaning all the world’s carpet sounds like a pretty cumbersome task that would definitely be intimately related to daily living. George himself even looks to the group for moral guidance, saying “life can be so confusing.
I… I’m searching for answers, anywhere.” Therefore, it seems likely that The Sunshine Carpet Cleaners would be classified as a religion.
However, there is still some concern for The Sunshine Carpet Cleaners. While there is nothing actually illegal about being a cult (because of 1st Amendment protections), and they can’t get into legal trouble for brainwashing Mr. Wilhelm, the organization could be subject to either civil or criminal legal trouble if the members had actually abducted Mr. Wilhelm like George claims. Mr. Wilhelm merely being “brainwashed” would not on it’s own be a problem, as there is nothing wrong with the cleaners trying to convince Mr. Wilhelm that his purpose in life is to change his name to Tanya and clean the world’s carpets. But, they could face legal jeopardy if they had abducted Mr. Wilhelm and were holding him against his will.
Another area where The Sunshine Carpet Cleaners could be in legal trouble is if they fraudulently convinced Mr. Wilhelm to make a donation to their cause. Although a court will not normally investigate whether the cleaners’ core tenant to clean the world’s carpet is actually true, it will investigate whether the belief is sincerely held by the members. Meaning, if a court found that the Sunshine Leader didn’t actually believe that the carpets of the world needed cleaning, yet still convinced Mr. Wilhelm to make a contribution to the organization, then the Carpet Cleaners would have obtained that donation fraudulently. If The Sunshine Carpet Cleaners don’t really believe what they are preaching, and only do so in order to convince people to contribute, then they could be brought up on charges of fraud no matter how smart or dumb their subjects are.
The Supreme Court traditionally follows an expansive understanding of what defines a “religion,” and based upon the Court’s writings it certainly seems like The Sunshine Carpet Cleaners are in fact of a religion. Additionally, it is not illegal for The Sunshine Carpet Cleaners to “brainwash” cleaning clients into joining the group as they are free to evangelize their carpet cleaning tenants to whomever they want.
But if they were coercive or fraudulent in obtaining Tanya’s support, then the world’s carpets won’t be they only thing they need to cleanse.