Inmate Sues Prison Claiming His Religious Liberty Entitles Him To Dress Like A Pirate

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Stephen Cavanaugh is incarcerated by the state of Nebraska. He also identifies himself a “member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster” in a legal complaint filed against the state’s Department of Corrections. According to that complaint, Cavanaugh requested “accommodated status” for this church, a status that would allow him to “order and wear religious clothing and pendants” and to “meet for weekly worship services and classes.”

Oh, and the “religious clothing” he wants to wear is a pirate costume.

Cavanaugh’s complaint quotes The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which he identifies as one of his religion’s “holy texts.” In the passage quoted by Cavanaugh, the “holy text” explains that “it is disfrespectful to teach our beliefs without wearing [the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s] chosen outfit” and that the Flying Spaghetti Monster “becomes angry if we don’t.” Thus, Cavanaugh writes, the prison system has forced him to “choose between angering his God by not attempting to spread His word and demonstrate his faith, or angering his God by doing so in a disrespectful manner.”

Although Cavanaugh’s complaint does not identify exactly what the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s “chosen outfit” is, the Gospel Cavanaugh quotes from is quite explicit about what the outfit consists of — “full Pirate regalia.”

The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster rose to a degree of prominence in 2005, after a man named Bobby Henderson wrote to the Kansas School Board regarding their “hearing to decide whether the alternative theory of Intelligent Design should be taught along with the theory of Evolution.” In that letter, Henderson wrote that “there are multiple theories of Intelligent Design” and that he was “of the strong belief that the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster.” The letter concludes with a request that, instead of limiting Kansas instruction to the scientific theory of evolution and a creationist alternative consistent with Christian beliefs, that the state’s schools also give equal time to “Flying Spaghetti Monsterism,” a faith that Henderson also labels “Pastafarianism.”

In court documents attached to Cavanaugh’s complaint, Nebraska prison officials say that they talked to the “founder of Pastafarianism,” and that they were informed that “it was a parody of religion.” Thus, the officials concluded that the “Nebraska Department of Correctional Services will not dedicate administrative and facility resources to support a parody.”

Yet, while it is exceedingly likely that Cavanaugh is engaged in an elaborate joke at the corrections department’s expense, and it is much more unlikely that he actually believes that the universe was created by a giant flying mass of spaghetti and meatballs that commands its followers to dress like Long John Silver, it is not entirely clear that Cavanaugh should lose his case, at least given the current direction of American religious liberty law’s development. According to Dwight Merriam and Evan Seeman, two attorneys who defend clients sued under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which is the federal statute governing religious liberty cases in prisons, “[t]here has been a trend of the courts to bypass an analysis of whether an inmate’s claimed religion is actually a legitimate religion and whether their claimed belief is actually a tenet of that faith.” Often, Merriam and Seeman claim, “all an inmate has to do, for many courts, is say is that he ‘sincerely’ has a religious belief, and then the burden shifts to the prison” to overcome a difficult legal test.

The RLUIPA statute is also very similar to another law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was the law at issue in the recent Hobby Lobby case holding that business owners with religious objections to birth control could deny contraceptive coverage to their employees. Although the RFRA statute only applies when the federal government “substantially burden[s] a person’s exercise of religion,” Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion for the Court in Hobby Lobby suggests that it is essentially up to the plaintiff in a religious liberty lawsuit to decide what comprises a substantial burden to their religious faith. According to Alito, the plaintiffs in Hobby Lobby “sincerely believe that providing the insurance coverage demanded by the HHS regulations lies on the forbidden side of the line, and it is not for us to say that their religious beliefs are mistaken or insubstantial.”

Admittedly, Alito’s formulation still requires a plaintiff’s religious belief to be “sincerely” held, but another case currently making its way through the federal courts could eliminate that requirement. In Eden Foods v. Burwell, a health food company brought a similar claim to the one at issue in Hobby Lobby, challenging the federal legal requirement that they include contraceptive coverage in their employees’ health plan. Unlike the owners of Hobby Lobby, however, Eden Foods’ owner and CEO told a reporter that his supposedly religious objections are not religious in nature at all. “I’ve got more interest in good quality long underwear than I have in birth control pills,” he told reporter Irin Carmon, adding that “I don’t care if the federal government is telling me to buy my employees Jack Daniel’s or birth control. What gives them the right to tell me that I have to do that? That’s my issue, that’s what I object to, and that’s the beginning and end of the story.”

If Eden Foods prevails in this lawsuit — that is, if the courts’ inquiry into the sincerity of a plaintiff’s religious beliefs is so cursory that it will allow a religious liberty lawsuit to proceed even though the person behind the lawsuit denies that his beliefs are religious at all — then there is no good reason why Stephen Cavanaugh’s lawsuit should not prevail as well. It is likely that Cavanaugh’s belief that the Flying Spaghetti Monster commands him to dress like a pirate is exactly as sincere as the owner of Eden Foods’ claimed belief that he objects to birth control on religious grounds.