Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Return of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

The political culture of modern America often portrays a divisive and convoluted government structure. The Founding Fathers were not ignorant of the fact that opposing political views would soon form, so they bound these factions by a common standard—The Constitution. The Constitution was crafted to transcend politics, and establish a common legal framework. Even as America evolves, the constitutional implications of such changes must be addressed with the gravest sincerity.
The Founding Fathers couldn’t possibly have predicted the court's significant and ongoing history with the religion clause of the First Amendment. In the context of early America, religion was widely accepted, generally practiced, and limited in diversity. The First Amendment’s guarantee to free exercise, and constraint on establishment was crafted with that context in mind. So, the Founding Fathers would have a hard time understanding the development of new religions, and their role in society as legal entities. Modern courts have continually struggled with classifying new or minority religions, and deciding their constitutional rights. In order to guarantee rights, the court must decide the legitimacy of a religion, but doing so raises issues of possible government favoritism or censorship.
A district court in Nebraska recently denied the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster status as a religion, and thus denied their rights of free exercise. The case was initiated by Stephen Cavanaugh, who is an inmate at the Nebraska State penitentiary, and sued over alleged free exercise violations. Despite giving exemptions to other religions, the prison would not let Mr. Cavanaugh wear his special religious clothing, which was full pirate attire. The prison also did not allow religious services between him and other members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Of course, he also asked for $5 million as reparation for the "deep emotional, psychological, and spiritual pain” that this incident has caused.
The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was initially formed in 2005 by physics grad student, Bobby Henderson. Henderson “revealed” this new god as a satirical protest to a Kansas proposal to teach intelligent design in public school. He argues that the language of intelligent design doesn’t specify a unique god or deity, so it could be any divine entity. In an effort to promote “multiple viewpoints,” Henderson proposed that the Flying Spaghetti Monster get equal attention among the theories taught.
Regardless of the current status of the Church and its followers, it was clearly formed out of spite, and without sincere belief. However, Henderson doesn’t see that as an important issue when addressing constitutional rights; ”after reading the court documents and talking with people in the know, I feel that here is a troubled guy who is legitimately trying to pursue his faith and, only after being stymied by the in-house prison channels, was forced to take the fight to the courts." It doesn't matter that the religion was founded under insincere pretenses; the sincere belief of the follower is all that matters.
As hard as it is to judge the legitimacy of a religion, the court finds equal difficulty in judging sincerity of belief. The Nebraska court nullified any claim of belief by rejecting the church as a legitimate religious group. Writing for the majority, District Judge John Gerrard argues that "[the church] is, rather, a parody, intended to advance an argument about science, the evolution of life, and the place of religion in public education."
The court has difficulty drawing lines, as that requires making substantive and definable measures for the entire future of the court. The court often builds on precedence, but the most effective way to interpret the constitution is from the view of those who wrote it. It seems naive to think that a modern judge would understand the grievances that prompted the guarantee of these rights more than those who lived through it. The crafters of the constitution were protecting deeply held and widely practiced belief from potential persecution from an overbearing government. As such, deeply held belief should undoubtedly be protected, but only with the pre-text of a sincere religion. Mr. Cavanaugh’s belief couldn't possibly be seen as sincere if the religion he subscribes to openly admits its satirical nature and political purpose. The religion was formed with the sole intent of addressing political issues, not for genuine worship. Nebraska’s district court decided correctly in denying the free exercise rights of Mr. Cavanaugh.


Rebecca J said...

While the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster may not be well established or similar to other traditional religions, I do not think that solely considering the initial origin of the religion and its purpose are enough to determine what constitutes a religion and what does not. It is possible that while the founder of the Flying Spaghetti Monster group had satirical motives, other followers have adopted the religion in a sincere way. The group does now have followers who attempt to practice the religion in full and their sincerity cannot be demeaned just by considering what Bobby Henderson was doing when he started the group. After over 10 years of existence, there may really be people that sincerely practice and believe the Flying Spaghetti Monster Religion. Therefore, I think the government needs to consider more how the religion has developed and spread through the years when deciding whether it is a "real" religion or not. This is a particularly tricky issues because the decision needs to be done in a way that avoids simply denying a group religious status because its beliefs and practices are not common or widespread. That being said, I think the issue of religious exemptions in prison should be more focused on whether allowing the religious practices conflicts with a compelling state interest in the prison. In the case O'Lone v Estate of Shabazz, the court ruled that there may be limitations of free exercise of religion if an inmates religious practices interfere with the safety and operations of the prison. The court needs to consider if the practices of the Flying Spaghetti Monster religion interfere with the prison practices to more accurately decide on this case.

Liz S. said...

I completely agree with Rebecca. While it is extremely hard to define what exactly is "sincere belief", other things should be considered when giving a religious exemption, especially in prisons. Prisons being very dangerous places should treat religious exemptions differently then just anywhere in the public sphere. By allowing inmates to wear whatever they want in prison or allowing certain inmates to host meetings whenever they want could lead to major security issues in the prison. Thus, I think the prison must consider both sincere belief and compelling state interest. In this case I think there is a compelling state interest to keep other inmates safe by not allowing Cavanaugh to wear a full pirate suit or meet with other inmates claiming to be followers of the FSM faith.

Caroline Vauzelle said...

I understand the argument about the fact that the Founding Fathers would not know what modern religions would be like, but I think - according to the saying of multiple Justices - that it is in fact a good reason to understand the Constitution in a fluid and realistic manner, that corresponds to the parameters of the current American society. I do not think this group is anti-religious so to say, but rather agnostic. Indeed, they do believe that intelligent design was the creation of a superior force, but simply refuse to name that force, hence the weird name.Furthermore, this is a belief that is visibly important in the life of the founder of this movement, for he works in the field of physics. Being agnostic is a perfectly valid belief, for the Supreme Court defined religion as "a sincere and meaningful belief that occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to the place held by God in the lives of other persons."

Lauren Caldas said...

I agree that the court made the right decision in denying the free exercise rights of this specific religious group within the given context. A prison, as Liz said, is a dangerous environment and that needs to be taken into consideration when granting religious exemptions. There are potential threats associated with the exemptions that are being asked for. However, to disregard the validity of this religion as a whole based off of sincerity seems to be slightly unjustified. I agree with Caroline that this group seems to be agnostic in nature which is technically a region as defined by the court. I think that the court could have denied them their exemptions strictly based off the context of the prison, they did not need to discount the religion as a whole.

Sara G. said...

I don't believe that the court has the right to deny him his religious needs in prison when they provide religious exceptions to others. The government cannot establish what is a religion and what isn't, as that leads to establishment. If the prison can reasonably allow him his requests than I feel that they should have to. If they allow other religious attire to be worn, than he should be allowed to wear his religious attire as well, as long as it doesn't pose a security threat. For example they could provide him with garments the same color as regular prison wear, or allow him to wear certain parts that don't interfere with prison attire. The prison should also allow him to meet with other members of the church, again, as the government cannot legally declare what is a valid religion and what is not without running into establishment issues.

Maddie G said...

I think the inmate in this case cannot be denied reasonable accommodation to wear his religious clothing. If his sincerely held religious beliefs center around the church of the flying spaghetti monster, he should be allowed to practice that as much as possible within the prison structure. I do not think it is the place of the court to judge which religions are "legitimate" or whose beliefs are "sincere enough". The inmate in question subscribes to an obscure, minority religion, but he still subscribes to it and should be allowed to practice as much as possible, including wearing the correct dress.