We don’t often report on RLUIPA prisoner cases (recall, that RLUIPA applies in the land use and prison contexts). But a recent federal decision in Nebraska – Cavanaugh v. Bartelt (D. Nebraska 2016), is just too good to pass up. Stephen Cavanaugh, a prisoner in the Nebraska State Penitentiary, claims that he is “Pastafarian” – a believer in the divine Flying Spaghetti Monster who practices “FSMism.” As noted by the court in its decision, FSM gospel states as follows:
Can I get a “Ramen” from the congregation?!
Behold the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM), today’s fastest-growing carbohydrate-based religion. According to church founder Bobby Henderson, the universe and all life within it were created by a mystical and divine being: the Flying Spaghetti Monster. What drives the FSM’s devout followers, aka Pastafarians? Some say it’s the assuring touch from the FSM’s Noodly Appendage. There are those who love the worship service, which is conducted in Pirate-Speak and attended by congregants in dashing buccaneer garb. Still others are drawn to the Church’s flimsy moral standards, religious holidays every Friday, and the fact that Pastafarian Heaven is way cooler. Does your Heaven have a Stripper Factory and a Beer Volcano? Intelligent Design has finally met its match—and it has nothing to do with apes or the Olive Garden of Eden.
Within these pages, Bobby Henderson outlines the true facts—dispelling such malicious myths as Evolution (“only a theory”), science (“only a lot of theories”), and whether we’re really descended from apes (fact: Humans share 95 percent of their DNA with chimpanzees, but they share 99.9 percent with Pirates!).
Mr. Cavanaugh requested the same accommodations afforded to prisoners of other religious faiths, including through ordering and wearing certain clothing (Pastafarians dress as pirates and believe that global warming is caused by the decreasing number of pirates on the high seas), weekly worship services and classes, and the right to receive communion. Prison officials rejected his requests because they determined that FSMism was a parody of a religion (not a religion itself). Cavanaugh sued under RLUIPA, the Free Exercise Clause, the Equal Protection Clause, and state law.
The federal court agreed with the prison officials and found “that FSMism is not a ‘religion’ within the meaning of the relevant federal statutes and constitutional jurisprudence. It is, rather, a parody, intended to advance an argument about science, the evolution of life, and the place of religion in public education. Those are important issues, and FSMism contains a serious argument – but that does not mean that the trappings of the satire used to make that argument are entitled to protection as a ‘religion.’” The court further elaborated:
This case is difficult because FSMism, as a parody, is designed to look very much like a religion. Candidly, 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. Nonetheless, it is evident to the Court that FSMism is not a belief system addressing ‘deep and imponderable’ matters: it is, as explained above, a satirical rejoinder to a certain strain of religious argument.
In the end, all of Mr. Cavanaugh’s claims were rejected. The decision is especially interesting for its discussion about the role of the courts in evaluating whether a belief is or is not religious. Although the case involves a prisoner’s claim, most of the court’s discussion about religious exercise applies to the land use context. Consider when local zoning agencies are confronted with development proposals from “non-traditional” religious groups. As noted by the court in this case, it is not the role of the judiciary to question religious beliefs. This case, however, presents an example of when a belief is not sufficiently religious to invoke the RLUIPA statute.
For anyone interested in learning more about the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, an informational video “introducing His Noodliness – the Flying Spaghetti Monster” – is available here.