Stephen Cavanaugh wants to dress like a pirate.
Ordinarily, he’d be free to dress however he wants, but Cavanaugh is also an inmate in the Nebraska State Penitentiary, where his clothing options are far more limited. So, in what appears to be an epic act of trolling, Cavanaugh sued demanding the right to practice his “Pastafarian” faith.
Pastafarians profess that the Earth was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster, who made the world “much as it exists today, but for reasons unknown made it appear that the universe is billions of years old (instead of thousands).” When scientists conduct experiments that seem to demonstrate that the universe is much older or that humans evolved from lower life forms, according to Pastafarianism, “we can be sure that the FSM is there, modifying the data with his Noodly Appendage. We don’t know why He does this but we believe He does, that is our Faith.”
Also, they claim that heaven “has a Beer Volcano and Stripper Factory.” They wear pirate costumes. And they take communion by eating “a large portion of spaghetti and meatballs.”
Pastafarianism, in other words, appears to be an elaborate joke. As federal District Judge John Gerrard explains in his opinion disposing of Cavanaugh’s case, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti monster “is a riposte to intelligent design.” “The conceit of FSMism,” Gerrard writes, “is that, because intelligent design does not identify the designer, its ‘master intellect’ could just as easily be a ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster’ as any Judeo-Christian deity.”
But is it a religion? And does Cavanaugh’s professed belief in an all-powerful clump of pasta and meatballs grant him the freedom not to follow certain legal restrictions in much the same way that the owners of Hobby Lobby do not need to provide their employees with birth control coverage?
This question, Gerrard writes, turns out to be much more difficult than it initially may seem. “Candidly,” the judge admits in his opinion, “propositions from existing caselaw 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.”
As Gerrard notes, a court of appeals decision that is binding in his court considered factors such as whether a professed belief “addresses fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters” and whether it “consists of a belief system as opposed to an isolated teaching” to determine if that belief constitutes a religion. Pastafarianism, at least on the surface, meets this test. “This case is difficult,” Gerrard says, “because FSMism, as a parody, is designed to look very much like a religion.”
Supreme Court doctrine, moreover, instructs judges to be very cautious about probing the legitimacy of a professed religious belief. In the Hobby Lobby dispute over birth control, the five justice majority concluded that the plaintiffs in that case “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.” If Cavanaugh genuinely believes that a giant mass of noodles compels him to dress like a pirate, then Judge Gerrard is forbidden from probing whether a belief in divine and sentient spaghetti is wrong.
Nevertheless, Gerrard ultimately rejects Cavanaugh’s claim. “This is not a question of theology,” he concludes, “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.”
That may be sufficient to dispose of this case, but the line between political and religious beliefs will not always been so clear cut. In Eden Foods v. Burwell, for example, a case that raised largely the same issues at the Hobby Lobby birth control case, the owner of Eden Foods suggested to reporter Irin Carmon that his supposedly religious objections to birth control were actually much more secular in nature. “I’ve got more interest in good quality long underwear than I have in birth control pills,” he told Carmon. “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.”
It was a profoundly stupid thing for a litigant in a religious liberty case to say, because it raised a serious cloud of doubt over whether his professed religious objections to birth control were sincere. As one federal appeals court concluded, the businessman’s “’deeply held religious beliefs’ more resembled a laissez-faire, anti-government screed.” (The Justice Department ultimately decided not to contest this issue after it lost Hobby Lobby.)
Yet, the reality is that religious and political views often merge together. Devout Catholics may oppose abortion or the death penalty due to church doctrine, and support politicians with similar views. Other people of faith may feel compelled to support policies that benefit the least fortunate. As historians Kim Phillips-Fein and Kevin Kruse have both documented, twentieth century conservatives quite intentionally worked to blur the line between libertarian economics and conservative Christian faith.
As Hobby Lobby demonstrates, lawsuits brought by these individuals may very well prevail — at least so long as Hobby Lobby remains good law — even if Cavanaugh won’t be able to dress like a pirate and feast on spaghetti and meatballs while he is incarcerated.