Lukas Novy says he’s a member of the “Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster,” a satirical faith which teaches that a creature composed of pasta and meatballs “created the world much as it exists today,” that pirates “were peaceful explorers and it was due to Christian misinformation that they have an image of outcast criminals today,” and that beer is good. In observance of this faith, Novy, a resident of the Czech Republic, insisted that he be allowed to wear a pasta sieve on his head while being photographed for an official government ID. And he succeeded:
Czech officials ruled that the nation’s religious liberty laws required this result. According to a government spokesperson, Novy’s request “complies with the laws of the Czech Republic where headgear for religious or medical reasons is permitted if it does not hide the face.”
Obviously, this is an intentionally absurd story of a man finding a legal loophole and exploiting it in a humorous (and harmless) way. But Novy’s Pastafarian ID card does speak to a broader problem facing any religious liberty regime: a religious liberty regime must be able to sort legitimate religious objections from attempts to game the law. In the United States, for example, individuals claiming they are exempt from the law due to religious objections must base those objections in “sincerely held” religious beliefs — not in a non-religious belief, a made up belief, or a prank. The alternative to policing this line is virtual anarchy, because without it anyone could raise virtually any objection to virtually any law and receive a religious exemption from having to comply with it.
There are early signs, however, that this line could break down. In one Michigan lawsuit, a corporate CEO claims he has the religious right to deny birth control coverage to his employees, even though he’s told the press that his objections to complying with federal contraceptive law is really more secular. A federal judge recently handed down such an expansive view of religious liberty that it would essentially allow religious groups to unilaterally declare that they hold any belief and then receive sweeping legal immunities for making that declaration.
Ultimately the later case has a decent chance of being reversed on appeal, and the former case is still caught in an early stage of litigation. Nevertheless, the fact remains that there is normally much more at stake in litigation than whether some guy gets to wear a silly hat on his ID card, and a too-expansive religious exemptions regime can be no less harmful than one that is too dismissive of religious freedom.