The Fourth District California Court of Appeal recently held that a Department of Corrections employee’s claim that he was constructively discharged after being discriminated against on the basis of his religion—“Sun Worshipping Atheism”—was properly dismissed.  Marshel Copple is the founding and only member of a religion he calls Sun Worshipping Atheism, the core tenets of which include: praying in the sun; taking in fresh air on a daily basis; sleeping at least 8 hours per day; eating and drinking when necessary; frequent exercise; daily rest; and engaging in frequent social activities.

The California Department of Corrections hired Copple as a corrections officer in 2009 and assigned him to work at Ironwood State Prison, where shifts often included 8-hour and occasionally as much as 16-hour mandatory overtime periods, depending on circumstances at the prison.  Shortly after he was hired, Copple asked not to be assigned any 12-hour shifts, citing his religious beliefs, specifically, his beliefs about his daily 8-hour sleep requirement.  His request ignored, Copple filed discrimination complaints both internally and with the EEOC and California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing, all of which were dismissed as lacking merit.  After he refused to work three overtime shifts, and after being warned that he faced possible termination, Copple quit his job and filed suit in Riverside County Superior Court alleging religious discrimination and harassment, failure to accommodate, retaliation, and constructive discharge under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”). 

The court in Copple relied on Friedman v. S. Cal. Permanente Med. Grp., the 2002 “seminal” Second District California Court of Appeal case, which created the following three objective guidelines for determining the “sometimes subtle distinction between a religion and a secular belief system” under the FEHA: (1) a religion addresses “fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters;” (2) a religion is “comprehensive in nature” and consists of a belief system as opposed to an isolated teaching; and (3) a religion has “certain formal and external signs,” such as rituals, hierarchy, or holy days.  Analyzing Copple’s claims under this framework, the court found that Sun Worshipping Atheism did not satisfy the first element because it merely amounted to a “way of life and personal philosophy,” namely, “living a healthy lifestyle.”  The court stated further that because Copple’s purported religion dealt only with living a healthy lifestyle, it was “not comprehensive and did not express a full set of beliefs.” Finally, the Copple court found that because there were no rituals, services, holy days, hierarchy, or structure where beliefs were observed, Sun Worshipping Atheism failed to meet the third prong of the Friedman test and was thus not a religion under the FEHA.  

The court in Copple emphasized that it was “not judging the intrinsic value of [Copple’s] beliefs or doubting the sincerity of his belief in them,” but concluded that it could not rely on Copple’s sincerity to classify Sun Worshipping Atheism a religion.