It's official: The Constitution does not give prisoners the right to wear a pirate costume. Or so U.S. District Court Judge John M. Gerrard ruled this week, responding to a Nebraska man's claim that as a Pastafarian—that is, a worshipper of the Flying Spaghetti Monster—he was entitled to have his religious practices accommodated, including "the ability to order and wear religious clothing." He didn't spell out what exactly that means, but as the court notes, The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster states that "it is disrespectful to teach our beliefs without wearing His chosen outfit, which of course is full Pirate regalia."
Perhaps I should back up a bit. The author of that gospel, Bobby Henderson, first told the world about the Flying Spaghetti Monster in 2005, after Kansas started teaching the idea of "intelligent design" alongside evolution. "I and many others around the world are of the strong belief that the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster," he wrote to the state board of education, urging that this perspective receive equal time. His mock-faith quickly grew from a secularist in-joke to an internet memefest, and the Spaghetti Monster now occupies as honored a place in the web-culture pantheon as Slenderman and Leeroy Jenkins. Evidently one of its fans is Stephen Cavanaugh, an inmate at the Nebraska State Penitentiary.
When Cavanaugh asked his jailers to accommodate his alleged faith, they rejected his request on the grounds that Pastafarianism is a parody religion, not a real religion. In a ruling that considers the First Amendment, the Constitution's equal protection clause, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and the Nebraska state constitution, Judge Gerrard decided to side with the prison, drawing a number of tricky philosophical distinctions along the way. For example:
It bears emphasizing that the Court is not engaged in—and has been careful to avoid—questioning the validity of Cavanaugh's beliefs. The Court is well aware that it "should not undertake to dissect religious beliefs because the believer admits that he is struggling with his position or because his beliefs are not articulated with clarity and precision that a more sophisticated person might employ." It is worth noting, however, that aside from identifying [The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster], Cavanaugh has not alleged anything about what it is that he actually believes—leaving the Court to read the book. And it is no more tenable to read the FSM Gospel as proselytizing for supernatural spaghetti than to read Jonathan Swift's "Modest Proposal" as advocating cannibalism.
This is not a question of theology: it is a matter of basic reading comprehension. The FSM Gospel is plainly a work of satire, meant to entertain while making a pointed political statement. To read it as religious doctrine would be little different from grounding a "religious exercise" on any other work of fiction. A prisoner could just as easily read the works of Vonnegut or Heinlein and claim it as his holy book, and demand accommodation of Bokononism or the Church of All Worlds. Of course, there are those who contend—and Cavanaugh is probably among them—that the Bible or the Koran are just as fictional as those books. It is not always an easy line to draw. But there must be a line beyond which a practice is not "religious" simply because a plaintiff labels it as such. The Court concludes that FSMism is on the far side of that line.
In a footnote, Judge Gerrard acknowledges that there is in fact a Church of All Worlds inspired by Robert Heinlein's novel Stranger in a Strange Land, but he distinguishes that from the Cavanaugh case on the grounds that "Cavanaugh does not allege allegiance to any comparable organization—he simply relies on the FSM Gospel, taken at face value." And in that case, Gerrard feels entitled to fall back on authorial intent: Pastafarianism was created as a parody, and therefore it need not be treated as sincere.
This raises a few questions. It is overwhelmingly likely that Cavanaugh understands that Pastafarianism is a joke and that he filed his suit to make mischief. But the judge says he isn't probing "the validity of Cavanaugh's beliefs," and his ruling is supposed to apply either way. So: Let us suppose that the plaintiff has had a spiritual experience—a hallucination while in solitary confinement, say—that convinced him the Spaghetti Monster is real. Would it really matter, in these death-of-the-author days, that Henderson created the faith as a gag? For all we know, scores of now-respected religions were launched by prophets who didn't literally believe what they were saying but now have thousands of earnest believers. Fake it til you make it, y'know?
Before you object that this is unlikely to happen to a religion that is transparently a goof, let me direct your attention to the Reformed Druids of North America, an organization founded as a Spaghetti Monster-style spoof in 1963. Carlton College required its students to attend religious services, but it did not insist they follow any particular faith. Some wiseasses started the Druids to test the limits of the requirement. "The group was never intended to be a true alternative religion, for the students were Christians, Jews, agnostics, and so forth and seemed content with those religions," Margot Adler recounts in her book Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today. "In 1964 the regulation was abolished but, much to the surprise—and, it is said, the horror—of the original founders, the RDNA continued to hold services and spread its organization far beyond the college campus." The group still exists.
OK, you say: In that case there's an organization that's been around for more than half a century, evolving in ways the founders didn't foresee. That isn't the case with Cavanaugh. So let me bring up another parody religion, the Church of the SubGenius. This sect is still in the hands of people who consider it a form of satire. But despite its deliberately absurd doctrines, the church has attracted some genuine believers. In 2012, when I interviewed SubGenius co-founder Ivan Stang for my book The United States of Paranoia, he told me those followers were his "biggest regret":
We were just trying to be like the [psychedelic comedy group] Firesign Theatre and underground comics, our heroes. And what we ended up with is this flypaper for kooks, to a certain degree. Or maybe just people who are ignorant and gullible. Or maybe they're just getting into this stuff for the first time. And they should be damned glad it was us and not Heaven's Gate or Jonestown….I've been told by quite a few people that the Invisible College or something like that was channeling this stuff through me. And I go, "No, they're not. My buddies and I just get high and we come up with this crap."
So here we have a direct conflict between authorial intent and parishioner interpretation. Let us suppose one of those misguidedly earnest SubGenii is locked up somewhere, and let us suppose she requests that her religious rituals be accommodated. Nothing even as disruptive as a pirate suit; just the same sorts of privileges that Christians and Muslims and Wiccans and Scientologists receive. Should her request be granted? If it were up to me, the answer would be yes, but I've got a broad-church (so to speak) understanding of what qualifies as a religion. I suspect Judge Gerrard would disagree.
In the meantime, Cavanaugh will have to go without his pirate costume, and his demand for "the right to receive communion" will also be denied. In other words, he can't insist that the prison feed him spaghetti and meatballs.