Last week, a federal court ruled that Pastafarianism—the religion of those who profess belief in the deity of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM)—is not a real religion.
The religion came into popularity when the Kansas State Board of Education gave preliminary approval for schools to teach alternative theories to evolution, including the theory of intelligent design. Bobby Henderson, then a 25-year-old with a bachelor’s degree in physics, wrote an open letter to the Kansas board imploring them to give equal time to other religions’ theories of the universe’s formation, including his religion’s belief that “the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster.”
Since 2005, Henderson’s religion has gained followers worldwide, with the faithful meeting up regularly for events that include eating pasta and wearing pirate costumes. The first official Pastafarian wedding took place in New Zealand last week.
Last week’s case centered around a Nebraska prison’s denial of a prisoner’s request to be afforded the same rights and privileges as his fellow religious inmates in order to observe his Pastafarianism—including being permitted to regularly eat pasta as communion and to wear a pirate costume as religious clothing. The prisoner, Stephen Cavanaugh, sued the prison officials for injunctive relief and money damages on the grounds that he was being denied a basic privilege of religious observance.
In a 16-page decision, Nebraskan U.S. District Judge John Gerrard ruled to dismiss the suit, writing that the Court found Pastafarianism to be a satire rather than a true religion. “This is not a question of theology: it is a matter of basic reading comprehension. The FSM Gospel is plainly a work of satire, meant to entertain while making a pointed political statement,” Gerrard wrote. “To read it as religious doctrine would be little different from grounding a ‘religious exercise’ on any other work of fiction.”
Noting that some might argue that all religious texts, including the Bible and the Quran, are works of fiction, Gerrard added,
“There must be a line beyond which a practice is not ‘religious’ simply because a plaintiff labels it as such.”
The question of how a court delineates between “true” and “false” religion has been a controversial topic in recent years, especially surrounding highly publicized cases such as Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. Gerrard cited the Hobby Lobby case in his opinion, noting that the case set a precedent for courts to “appropriately question whether a prisoner’s religiosity, asserted as the basis for a requested accommodation, is authentic.” Courts cannot, on the other hand, rule against a request for religious accommodation on the grounds of the veracity of the religion’s claims.
While Gerrard acknowledged that Cavanaugh has been a practitioner of the faith for years and “has several tattoos proclaiming his faith,” he wrote that the Court’s understanding of Pastafarianism as being inherently satirical precludes “the possibility that Cavanaugh’s assertion of his religious beliefs could be legitimate and sincere.”
The religion might have its roots in satire, but Henderson takes issue with those who dismiss his religion as fake. “It’s not a joke,” reads the Q&A section of the Church’s official website.
“Elements of our religion are sometimes described as satire and there are many members who do not literally believe our scripture, but this isn’t unusual in religion. A lot of Christians don’t believe the Bible is literally true—but that doesn’t mean they aren’t True Christians.”
In response to the recent ruling to dismiss Cavanaugh’s complaint, Henderson wrote, “I’m suspicious of any standard they’ve come up with to decide that our religion is not legit.”
In recent years, Pastafarians have been permitted to wear a colander on their head—a symbol of their devotion to the FSM Church—in official driver’s license photos and government swearing-in ceremonies.
--by Caroline Matas
Image Source: Solstice Parade. Photo by Steve Voght, Flickr Creative Commons.