Just a warning: You may eventually get a request for a religious accommodation from an employee who believes in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
OK, it’s not that great a danger. But Richard R. Meneghello, writing on the Fisher & Phillips blog, cites a recent case that could have repercussions for employers.
It’s complicated, so bear with us. Meneghello recounts the tale of one Stephen Cavanaugh, an inmate at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln. He’s serving a four-to-eight year sentence after being convicted of attempted first-degree assault after chasing a married couple with a hatchet in 2012.
Although the prison system recognizes 20 different religions (including Rastafarianism and Satanism), Meneghello says, it does not count worship of the Flying Spaghetti Monster as a recognized faith.
And Cavanaugh says he’s a follower of FSMism — and demanded that the facility offer him several religious accommodations.
When his accommodation request was turned down, he filed suit in federal court.
A little background
We interrupt the Cavanaugh saga for a note of explanation about the Flying Spaghetti Monster phenomenon. Here’s how Meneghello described its evolution (if you’ll excuse the term):
… [I]t’s a fairly new “religion” that just emerged in the past 10 years. In response to a 2005 Delaware court case involving whether public school children should be taught the theory of “intelligent design” as an alternative to evolution, the Kansas State Board of Education began considering whether to require its students be taught intelligent design. This theory maintains that life on Earth displays sufficient complexity to suggest a “master intellect” designed it, and that evolution cannot account for all that is found on the planet.
A 24-year old physics graduate student named Bobby Henderson wrote a satirical open letter to the Kansas State Board professing his belief that the master intellect behind intelligent design could as easily be a “Flying Spaghetti Monster” as any Judeo-Christian deity. In explaining gravity, for example, Henderson wrote, “What if it is the Flying Spaghetti Monster, pushing us down with his Noodly Appendages, that causes this force?”
Henderson’s tongue-in-cheek letter took a life of its own after being widely distributed on the internet. In 2006, Henderson published the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a spoof on religion and the concept of intelligent design. In it he describes his own “carbohydrate-based” religion where congregants dress like buccaneers and communicate in “pirate-speak,” religious holidays are observed each and every Friday with the consuming of ample amounts of beer, and followers are called “Pastafarians.”
Spaghetti and beer
We now return to Cavanaugh, who wasn’t too specific as to the accommodation he was seeking — although, as Meneghello points out, under the FSM Gospel, he’s entitled to wear a pirate costume in prison, have the right to drink beer on Fridays, and to receive “a large portion of spaghetti and meatballs” as communion.
His lawsuit sought $5 million in pain and suffering.
Shocking though it may seem, the judge was skeptical of Cavanaugh’s arguments. In its final ruling, the court wrote:
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.
Case closed. Unless, of course, Cavanaugh appeals.
The word’s spreading
This Pastafarian thing may have some legs. Last November, Meneghello says, the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles permitted a woman to wear a spaghetti colander on her head in her driver’s license photo after she requested a religious accommodation of her FSM beliefs.
And just recently, New Zealand hosted the world’s first Pastafarian wedding, conducted by the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, according to a story in the Chicago Tribune. The group apparently has gained legitimacy in New Zealand, where authorities have decided it can officiate weddings.
Photos accompanying the story show the groom and guests in pirate attire, and the bride wore a fetching colander on her head.
It could happen to you
Bizarre as it seems, the Cavanaugh case does bring up an interesting question for employers: What if an employee comes to you with an accommodation request based on some other belief system you’ve never heard of?
Here’s Meneghello’s advice:
The EEOC would have you consider the request and not dismiss it out of hand simply because it does not involve one of the major religions. The agency says you should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief, but if you have an objective basis for questioning the religious nature of the belief, you would be justified in seeking additional supporting information.
The EEOC says you can make an inquiry into the facts and circumstances of the employee’s claim that the belief or practice at issue is religious, and that the belief or practice gives rise to the need for the accommodation, so long as your inquiries are limited to making these determinations. The information provided by an employee to satisfy your request could take many forms. For example, says the agency, written materials or the employee’s own first-hand explanation may be sufficient to alleviate your doubts about the religious nature of the professed belief. Or, third-party verification might be needed through books, publications, texts, or some other form.
Regardless of the request, make sure you document your inquiries, your findings, and your decision. If necessary, consult with your legal counsel to ensure you are putting yourself in the best position to defend yourself should your decision get challenged.