Justice

‘Pastafarian’ Ex-Porn Star Gains The Right To Wear A Pasta Strainer In Her Driver’s License Photo

CREDIT: Asia Lemmon/ Jessica Steinhauser as she appears on her driver's license

Asia Lemmon/ Jessica Steinhauser as she appears on her driver's license.

When Asia Lemmon, a former adult film star and mother of two, visited the Department of Motor Vehicles in Hurricane, Utah to renew her driver’s license recently, her experience roughly resembled that of most Americans: She stood in line, filled out forms, and signed tedious paperwork.

When it came time to take a new picture for Lemmon’s license, however, things took an odd turn. As officials readied the camera, Lemmon abruptly placed a colander on top of her head. She encountered initial resistance from confused DMV workers, but after explaining that she was a “Pastafarian” and presenting paperwork detailing how the headgear was a component of her religion, officials relented and snapped the photo.

But while Lemmon, whose legal name is Jessica Steinhauser and who previously went by Asia Carrera when working in the adult film industry, persuaded DMV workers by appealing to freedom of religion, she later explained her larger reasoning was a bit more complicated.

“I’m a really proud, outspoken atheist,” Lemmon told The Spectrum. “I am proud of Utah for allowing freedom of all religions in what is considered by many to be a one-religion state. I wanted to see if I could (wear the colander) in Utah. I wasn’t sure if they would let me.”

So what gives? Why is a self-declared atheist fighting for freedom of religion, and why is she wearing a pasta strainer on her head? The answer lies in the growth of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM), a satirical take on faith that has a long history of challenging definitions of religious freedom.

In fact, while Lemmon’s request — and justification — may sound strange, the practice of donning a cooking bowl in government photos has become increasingly common among atheists in recent years. An Austrian man was the first to wear the unusual headgear in an ID photo in 2011, and soon pasta strainers were showing up on driver’s licenses and gun permits in New Zealand and Australia. A Texas man became the first American to sport the strainer in driver’s license photo in August of last year, and an Oklahoma woman succeeded in convincing her local DMV to allow her to do the same in September 2014. Most peculiarly, after Christopher Schaeffer was elected to Pomfret Town Board New York, he wore a colander on his head while taking his oath of office this past January.

In all of these cases, the strainer-wearers claimed to be Pastafarians, or followers of the FSM. The religion was founded in 2005 when Bobby Henderson, then a physics student, protested a decision by a Kansas school board that allowed the faith-based theory of intelligent design to be taught alongside evolution. Henderson responded to the move by sending a letter to the school board satirically critiquing the inclusion, arguing that if teaching intelligent design was an attempt to appease creationist Christians, respect should also be given to those who hold “the strong belief that the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster.”

The political joke caught fire in the media, and the FSM soon became a rallying cry for many atheists frustrated by what they saw as attempts by religious Americans to violate the separation of church state. The FSM — whose followers sometimes insist is a genuine faith tradition — has since grown to develop a number of lighthearted traditions for skeptics, often by lampooning existing religions. The Pastafarian celebration of “Ramendan,” for instance, is a riff on the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, where participants eat only Ramen noodles for several days. A similar parody of Passover, called “Pastover,” is also celebrated by some Pastafarians, where rituals are typically concluded with the phrase “rAmen.” Pastafarians also have their own books (e.g., the “Loose Cannon”) and an official website maintained by Henderson that sells $20 ordination certificates for ministers who can reportedly perform weddings in some states.

Most Pastafarians, of course, primarily see their devotion as a form of playful satire, as well as an excuse to build solidarity and community among atheists. But just as Henderson’s original letter used humor to make a serious critique, so too have more recent expressions of the FSM worked to simultaneously point out issues facing atheists and playfully test the legal boundaries of religious freedom. Although Lemmon was able wear a colander in her driver’s license with little incident, the Austrian man who started the trend was forced by authorities to obtain a doctor’s certificate verifying that he was “psychologically fit” to drive. More recently, DMV workers in New Jersey called the police when a man refused to remove a spaghetti strainer from his head while taking a photo, and an atheist group is suing the state of Minnesota for denying a man the right to perform a marriage using his FSM ordination. In addition, a Pastafarian inmate in Nebraska is currently bringing a legal challenge against the state’s Department of Corrections, arguing they should allow him to “order and wear religious clothing and pendants” (a foundational FSM belief is the right to dress like a pirate) and to “meet for weekly worship services and classes.”

Taken together, colander-crowned Pastafarians such as Lemmon are part of a growing movement among the broader atheist community to push the boundaries of religious freedom — particularly in the United States. Responding to a case brought by the American Humanist Association, for example, an Oregon judge recently declared Secular Humanism a religion for legal purposes, setting up a precedent that could benefit atheists who wish to enjoy privileges traditionally afforded to religious Americans. Meanwhile, members of the Satanic Temple — a group which appeals to traditional Satanism but lists among its foundational tenets that “Beliefs should conform to our best scientific understanding of the world” — are repeatedly challenging encroachments of religion in the public sphere: when a six-foot-tall monument to the Ten Commandments was erected on the grounds of the Oklahoma Capitol grounds in 2012, the group responded by submitting an application to build a seven-foot statue of Satan next door.

But even as the nonreligious continue to debate the very serious issue of America’s understanding of religion, atheists such as Lemmon are dedicated to having a little fun along the way — as is the next generation of skeptics.

“It’s just funny,” Lemmon told The Spectrum, referring to the FSM. “The church is purely satirical. (My daughter) Catty learned about it online before I did. She’s been an atheist since she was 5, and that’s how I learned about it.”