United States: Claims To Accommodate Flying Spaghetti Monster-Ism Hit The Wall In Nebraska Court

Last Updated: April 27 2016
Article by Darren E. Nadel and William E. Trachman

On April 12, 2016, a district court in Nebraska rejected the religious accommodation claims advanced by a member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.1 In denying the religious accommodation claims, the court was forced to walk a narrow line between precedents that bar courts from questioning the centrality of a belief to an individual's faith, and cases that allow courts to assess the religious nature of a plaintiff's beliefs. Because the plaintiff is an inmate and not an employee, this case does not involve reasonable accommodations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"). But the court's evaluation of what makes a belief system a "religion" offers insight into how other courts may address this complex and sensitive issue. The decision also provides interesting reading.

Pirates, Pastafarians and Beer Volcanos

Stephen Cavanaugh is an inmate at the Nebraska State Penitentiary. He claims membership in the Church of Flying Spaghetti Monster ("FSMism"), whose adherents often refer to themselves as "Pastafarians." As such, the plaintiff claimed that he was entitled to, among other things, wear full pirate regalia while proselytizing to other prisoners, the right to "a seaworthy vessel," to treat Fridays as a holiday, and to wear a "Colander Of Goodness" on his head.2 He brought suit against several prison officials for refusing to accommodate his religious beliefs. Unsurprisingly, the lawyers representing the prison officials moved to dismiss.

Cavanaugh was pro se, so the court treated his claims liberally, and even conducted independent research into the origin of FSMism and the "Gospel" of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Cavanaugh brought his claims under the Free Exercise Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Nebraska State Constitution. Additionally, the court treated the plaintiff's claims as arising under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).3 That statute allows a prisoner to seek an exemption from prison rules in the case of a substantial burden on the exercise of his/her religion.

After a review of the Gospel and other sources, the court found that FSMism originated as a response to intelligent design theory, arguing that it is just as likely that God set the universe in motion as did a great Flying Spaghetti Monster.4

FSMism also has other humorous components that resemble religious practices and beliefs at first glance:

There are those who love the worship service, which is conducted in Pirate-Speak and attended by congregants in dashing buccaneer garb. Still others are drawn to the Church's flimsy moral standards, religious holidays every Friday, and the fact that Pastafarian Heaven is way cooler. Does your Heaven have a Stripper Factory and a Beer Volcano? Intelligent Design has finally met its match—and it has nothing to do with apes or the Olive Garden of Eden.5

The court took judicial notice of FSMism's texts, since Cavanaugh referred to them in his Complaint and because the contents of the documents were capable of verification. The court viewed judicial notice of the FSM Gospel as "as effectively the same as taking judicial notice of the Bible."

How Much Can Courts Question Religious Beliefs?

Faced with the professed beliefs of a Pastafarian, what was the court to do? Courts are generally unwilling to question the importance or centrality of an individual's religious beliefs to their faith. Moreover, a court "must not presume to determine the plausibility of a religious claim." And while there is no prohibition against courts inquiring into whether an individual's beliefs are sincerely held, courts are often reluctant to do so.6

On the other hand, courts have expressed some willingness to question whether an individual's beliefs are of a "religious" nature. In Cavanaugh, for instance, the court purported to walk this careful line by stating that "an asserted belief might be so bizarre, so clearly non-religious in motivation, as not to be entitled to protection." As examples, the court cited to cases involving the "Church of Cognizance" and the "Church of Marijuana."

As the court acknowledged, this approach necessarily disadvantages unfamiliar or new religions with which judges lack experience or knowledge.7 But this is simply a consequence, argued the court, of favoring "religious" beliefs over non-religious beliefs, as both RLUIPA and the Free Exercise Clause do. Thus, the court held that with respect to FSMism, prison officials could "appropriately question whether a prisoner's religiosity, asserted as the basis for a requested accommodation, is authentic."

What is a Religion?

Confronted with a plaintiff who purported to espouse sincerely held beliefs about a Flying Spaghetti Monster, the court had to offer a basic outline of what it means to have beliefs that are of a "religious" nature:

First, a religion addresses fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters. Second, a religion is comprehensive in nature; it consists of a belief-system as opposed to an isolated teaching. Third, a religion often can be recognized by the presence of certain formal and external signs.8

The court acknowledged, however, that FSMism presents unique challenges under existing jurisprudence. It noted that "propositions from existing case law are not particularly well-suited for such a situation, because they developed to address more ad hoc creeds, not a comprehensive but plainly satirical doctrine."

Citing other cases, the court described beliefs about "deep and imponderable" ideas that typically indicated religiosity: beliefs about (1) existential matters, like humankind's sense of being; (2) teleological matters, such as humankind's purpose in life; and (3) cosmological matters, such as humankind's place in the universe.

The court rejected the idea that FSMism is a religion because the beliefs associated with it fall outside of these realms. Instead, the court held that FSMism is simply "a satirical rejoinder to a certain strain of religious argument." Indeed, the court questioned the seriousness of the basic tenets of the Church's doctrine, holding that it would not take FSMism's "Gospel" in a literal fashion, when it was clearly meant to satirize other religious beliefs.9 And while the court was quick to argue that it was not questioning the "validity" of the plaintiff's beliefs, this did not mean that it needed to treat FSMism as a genuine religion.10

RLUIPA and Substantial Burdens

The U.S. Supreme Court recently addressed religious burdens in the context of private employers and the Affordable Care Act's birth control mandate.11 Like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) statute that is invoked as part of this discussion, RLUIPA protects certain religious beliefs that are affected by generally applicable laws. Specifically, RLUIPA provides that in a program that receives federal financial assistance:

No government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution . . . even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person—

(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and

(2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.12

Strangely, the court in Cavanaugh addressed the question of "substantial burden" despite already having ruled that FSMism is not a religion. On the merits of the question, the court noted that denying Cavanaugh the right to wear pirate regalia and a colander on his head, among other things, might make it harder for Cavanaugh to practice FSMism, but determined that such burdens were not "substantial" ones. Cavanaugh, the court held, could still practice the fundamental tenets of FSMism, and he was not coerced into acting contrary to his beliefs.

Cavanaugh's poor pleading substantially affected the court's judgment on this question. The court held that although Cavanaugh might prefer to wear pirate garb and have other privileges, he had failed to explain why they were necessary to practice the "religion" of FSMism. It is unclear how the court would have ruled if the plaintiff had better articulated the reasons why religiously-mandated proselytizing required specific religious clothing.

What is the Relevance to Employment Issues?

In the wake of recent high-profile disputes over religious freedom in the contexts of birth control and LGBT rights, the likelihood is that employers will increasingly face challenges in responding to their employees' religious accommodation requests. Such claims may arise in the context of a federal or state RFRA statute, or under Title VII's religious accommodation provisions.

With respect to an RFRA claim, an individual may assert a religious objection to a neutral law. Under Title VII, employees may object on religious grounds to an employer's rules about scheduling, dress codes, or other relevant employee standards. As to these rules and standards, employers owe a duty to accommodate the religious practices of their employees, unless an accommodation would create an undue burden to the employer's business.13

In Cavanaugh, notably, it was individual prison officials—and not courts—who had to make the initial determination about whether or not Cavanaugh belonged to a "real" religion.14 In other contexts, it will be employers and their counsel.

Like courts, employers should be cautious and thoughtful when questioning the merits of any particular religious accommodation claim, or trying to determine whether the employee's religious beliefs are sincerely held. However, employers should take a bit of comfort knowing that some courts may scrutinize employees' religious beliefs when evaluating accommodation requests.

Practical Considerations

In fiscal year 2015, individuals filed 3,502 charges of religious discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Many of these claims allege an employer's failure to accommodate religious beliefs and practices.

While certainly not the norm, there are some employees who may demand religious accommodations to gain preferential treatment or parody religious accommodations generally. Determining which claims for accommodation are reasonable and legitimate can thus be a complicated endeavor. Employers should therefore consider:

  • Developing a plan for dealing with religious accommodation requests.
  • Consulting counsel when an employee asserts a need for a religious accommodation, particularly where the request relates to an unfamiliar religion or practice.
  • Assessing, in coordination with counsel, the impact that an accommodation would have on their business.
  • Continuing to monitor legal developments, including case law addressing specific factual circumstances.

Footnotes

1. Cavanaugh v. Bartelt, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 48746 (D. Neb., Apr. 12, 2016).

2. Cavanaugh, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 48746, at * 17. Notably, other individuals have asserted the right to wear a colander on their heads while taking a driver's license photo. See Steve Annear, Woman Allowed To Wear Spaghetti Strainer In Mass. License Photo, Nov. 13, 2015 (Boston Globe), available at: https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/11/13/woman-allowed-wear-spaghetti-strainer-her-head-mass-license-photo/m8ADuh2oS2zk2jrc85o3FM/story.html.

3. 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc, et seq.

4. Cavanaugh, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 48746, at *6 ("Can I get a 'Ramen' from the congregation?! Behold the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM), today's fastest-growing carbohydrate-based religion. ... (fact: Humans share 95 of their DNA with chimpanzees, but they share 99.9 percent with Pirates!).") (internal quotation marks omitted).

5. Id. at *7 (original emphasis).

6. But see e.g., EEOC v. Union Independiente de la Autoridad de Acueductos y Alcantarillados de Puerto Rico, 279 F.3d 49 (1st Cir. 2002) (union raised issues about sincerity of plaintiff's beliefs by pointing out inconsistent behavior).

7. Cavanaugh, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 48746, at *13 ("The Court is well-aware of the risks of such an endeavor: it might be too restrictive, and unduly exclusive of new religions that do not fit the criteria derived from known religious beliefs.")

8. Id. at *15.

9. Id. at *17 ("But to read the FSM Gospel literally would be to misrepresent it—and, indeed, to do it a disservice in the process. That would present the FSM Gospel as precisely the sort of Fundamentalist dogma that it was meant to rebut.").

10. Id. at *17 ("It is no more tenable to read the FSM Gospel as proselytizing for supernatural spaghetti than to read Jonathan Swift's 'Modest Proposal' as advocating cannibalism.")

11. See Visconti, Nadel, and Trachman, Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Hobby Lobby, Opens Door to Religious Objections to Statutes Covering Employers, Littler Insight (July 7, 2014).

12. 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a).

13. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(j) (accommodation not required if it would cause an "undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business."); see also TWA v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63, 74 (1977) ("The intent and effect of this definition was to make it an unlawful employment practice under § 703(a)(1) for an employer not to make reasonable accommodations, short of undue hardship, for the religious practices of his employees and prospective employees.").

14. Cavanaugh, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 48746, at *6 ("[P]rison officials determined that FSMism was a parody religion.").

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
Darren E. Nadel
William E. Trachman
 
In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of www.mondaq.com

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.

Disclaimer

Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.

Registration

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.

Cookies

A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.

Links

This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.

Mail-A-Friend

If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.

Security

This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.