On Monday, Stephen comes into work dressed like a pirate. As his employer, you think this is strange, and maybe pushing the limits of the dress code, but there are other more important things on your plate, so you decide to deal with it later. On Tuesday, Stephen is again dressed like a pirate, and this time he is also wearing a colander on his head. Before you have a chance to remind Stephen that the dress code prohibits hats (to the extent a colander could be considered a hat), Stephen approaches you and tells you that he will no longer be working on Fridays because he is a Pastafarian, a member of the religion FSMism (Flying Spaghetti Monster-ism), and under FSMism every Friday is a religious holiday. After a quick Google search, you also learn that wearing pirate garb and a colander are practices of FSMism. Do you have to tolerate Stephen’s new wardrobe and grant his request for Fridays off as a religious accommodations?
According to the United States District Court for the District of Nebraska, the answer is very likely no. In Cavanaugh v. Bartelt, the court held that FSMism is not a “religion” within the meaning of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The case was brought by an inmate in the Nebraska State Penitentiary who claimed that prison officials were failing to provide him with accommodations to practice his religion—they were not letting him wear pirate clothing or allowing him to receive communion (a large bowl of spaghetti and meatballs). Although employers will examine religious accommodations requests under Title VII rather than the RLUIPA, the analyses of whether a “religion” is in fact a religion under the law are similar under both statutes.
In Cavanaugh the court recognized that determining whether FSMism was actually a religion was difficult because it was designed to look very much like a religion. However, after examining the origins of FSMism (a response to the teaching of intelligent design in schools) and reading The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the court determined that the central purpose of FSMism is satire, and the only position it takes is that others’ religious beliefs should not be presented as “science.” By contrast, other religions deal with “deep and imponderable” matters and take a position on the existence and importance of a supreme being.
This case serves as a reminder that while the protections for religion under Title VII sweep broadly, there is a limit to what is considered a protectable religion or religious belief. As we previously discussed here and here, Title VII does not protect the “religion” of Kozy Kitten Cat Food or a prospective employee’s refusal to provide his social security number because it is the “Mark of the Beast.” Responding to employee requests for religious accommodations can be difficult, especially when the employee’s religion is one that is unfamiliar to you.