Onions and Flying Spaghetti Monsters
Oscar Wilde once wrote that “truth, in matters of religion, is simply the opinion that has survived.”
Two recent federal court opinions explored the sensitive boundaries of what constitutes a “religion” for purposes of accommodations. In the first case, out of Nebraska, an inmate sued prison officials for failing to accommodate his religion.2 The inmate belonged to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (“FSMism”). As a self-proclaimed Pastafarian, he claimed, among other things, entitlements to wear full pirate regalia while proselytizing, to a seaworthy vessel, to treat Fridays as holidays, and to wear a “Colander of Goodness”—that is, an actual colander—on his head.3 Facing the question of whether plaintiff’s beliefs were entitled to protection as a religion, the court focused on three factors: (1) whether FSMism “addresses fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters”; (2) whether FSMism is “comprehensive in nature,” resembling a “belief-system as opposed to an isolated teaching”; and (3) whether FSMism could be recognized by “certain formal and external signs.” The court held that FSMism did not need to be treated as a genuine religion by prison officials because it failed to satisfy these criteria.
A New York court came to a different conclusion when considering Title VII discrimination claims brought by the EEOC on behalf of employees of an employer that allegedly endorsed a program known as “Onionhead”4 or “Harnessing Happiness.”5 The CEO instituted the program, which his aunt created, to serve as a multi-purpose conflict resolution tool. Employees objected to forced participation, however, because materials included references to God, demons, Satan, purity, and miracles. Evidence also showed employees were told to burn candles and incense to cleanse the workplace, and to chant or pray in their workplace. The New York court did not follow the Nebraska court’s three-factor test, which is disfavored in the Second Circuit. Instead, the court asked whether a jury could find that: (1) the employer’s belief in Onionhead was sincere; and (2) whether that belief is, in “the believer’s own scheme of things, religious.” Under that standard, the court readily found that Onionhead was religious in nature and allowed the plaintiffs’ claims to proceed.
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