Friday, April 15, 2016

You must now get government approval before you can practice your faith in the U.S.

A federal judge today denied a Nebraska inmate named Stephen Cavanaugh the right to practice his religion because Cavanaugh's relgion didn't meet the judge's standards as to what a religion should be.  Cavanaugh professes to be a Pastafarian, a worshipper of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  The judge ruled that Pastafarianism (which Cavanaugh calls FSMism) is not entitled to Constitutional protection because:

FSMism is not a "religion" within the meaning of the relevant federal statutes and constitutional jurisprudence. It is, rather, a parody, intended to advance an argument about science, the evolution of life, and the place of religion in public education.
Now, I actually think the judge is right.  I, too, believe that Pastafarianism is a parody and not a real religion.  But here's the thing: what I believe shouldn't matter, and what the judge believes shouldn't matter.  The only thing that should matter is what Cavanaugh believes, and the only person in a position to judge that is Cavanaugh.

The problem with trying to impose any objective standard on what is and is not a legitimate religion is that people actually believe all kinds of crazy shit.  Some people worship aliens.  Some people believe that humans are infested by immortal ghosts.  Some people believe that the Word of God was literally pulled out of a hat.  Some people worship many gods and some people worship none.  Some people believe that God requires us to love one another and some people believe that God requires us to kill one another (and some people believe that these two imperatives are in no way incompatible).

This is the problem with trying to judge religion: what standard do you apply?  Once you rule out religions that seem like parodies, where do you stop?  Is satanism a parody?  How about the Church of Reality?  Or the Church of Spiritual Humanism, of which your humble correspondent is a card-carrying member?  How about the Church of Happy Science?  (No, I am not making that up.  There is actually a branch in my neighborhood.)  Is Unitarianism-Universalism (not to be confused with Unitarianism) not a legitimate faith because they don't seem to have any idea what they believe?

The only possible answer that does not put you on the express train to religious tyranny is that you have to accept everyone at their word for what they believe, even if those beliefs seem completely ridiculous to you.  Frankly, the idea that Jesus is God (or even that there is a God or even a god) seems completely ridiculous to me.  But I will nonetheless fight to the death for your right to believe it if you want to.

And I will fight to the death for Steven Cavanaugh's right to believe in the Flying Spaghetti monster, not because I think it's a legitimate faith, but because that is not or me to decide.  My freedom to believe things that you find ridiculous can only be protected by my willingness to let you believe things that I find ridiculous free from government interference.

That is why I am calling for the establishment of a legal defense fund for Stephen Cavanaugh.  We need to get this disastrous ruling overturned, not for Steven's sake or for the sake of the Flying Spaghetti monster, but for all of us.  The idea that the government gets to decide for us what we may or may not believe must not be allowed to stand.


Publius said...

Neither the judge, nor the government is telling Cavanaugh what he can believe. The judge's ruling denies him his petition for $5 million, the wearing of special clothes and jewelry, and special schedules and meals while he is in prison.

During WW 2, a draftee seeking conscientious objector status would be evaluated for the sincerity of his beliefs.

Ron said...

> Neither the judge, nor the government is telling Cavanaugh what he can believe.

No, that's not true. Cavanaugh was not denied the right to worship because he's in prison. It is beyond question that prisoners do not lose their First Amendment right to freedom of religion. Cavanaugh was denied his right to worship -- and the judge said so explicitly in the passage that I cited from his ruling -- because Cavanaugh's religion "is not a religion." So the judge is in fact telling Cavanaugh what he is and is not allowed to believe.

coby said...

A couple of gentle points/queries:
1. "The idea that the government gets to decide for us what we may or may not believe must not be allowed to stand."
- I'm not sure it is correct to conflate the judiciary with government, but regardless I don't think it is useful to in this context. The government (congress and executive) decides you have freedom of religion. The judiciary decides what is acceptable as a religion.

2. The administration of law is full of subjectivity and determinations of what people are "really" thinking as, I think, it must be, for better or worse. How is this case different from any that involves determining a person's motives or intent?

Ron said...


The judiciary is absolutely a part of the government in the U.S. The U.S. government has three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial.

> The judiciary decides what is acceptable as a religion.

And that *completely* eviscerates the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion. If you can only practice religions that are "acceptable" to the judiciary then you have no freedom at all.

The *whole point* of having Constitutional guarantees of certain rights is to give individuals the power to do things that the government doesn't approve of.

> How is this case different from any that involves determining a person's motives or intent?

Because religion is *inherently* about belief in things that cannot be objectively proven. Other mental states are at least nominally (even if tenuously) bound to reality. Religious beliefs are not. That is the distinguishing feature of religion.

Razvan Popa said...

Would a religion which required of people to beat each other be acceptable?

Ron said...

Yes, of course. Why would you doubt it? Judaism, Christianity and Islam all purport to believe that God has ordered people to kill other people in the past, and that it was righteous to obey those orders.

Of course, it's not acceptable to *act* on those beliefs. But it's perfectly acceptable to profess to hold them.

coby said...

Re: government - fair enough, not that important anyway.

Re: beliefs - I think maybe this sentence gets to the heart of it: "The only thing that should matter is what Cavanaugh believes, and the only person in a position to judge that is Cavanaugh."

What I'm saying is that courts have to make determinations about what people really believe all the time, so I'm not sure this is a fundamentally different circumstance. (ie "was the victim black?"...err, sorry, "did the officer believe there was a gun?")

If you take your position at face value then the courts have no choice but to take everyone at their word which seems an extreme position (didn't I read somewhere on the internet that all extreme positions are wrong?? ;-) and results in ridiculous on their face outcomes (ie we must respect satirical worship of the Flying Spaghetti Monster).

Ron said...

Well, if it were up to me no religion would get any special treatment from the government. So no tax exemptions, no special dispensation for religious beliefs in prison, nada. If I had my way the government would be completely secular. But that's not the way it is. The government *does* grant special dispensation to religion, and so if it is going to be true to the First Amendment it has to grant the same dispensation to *all* religions. It can't pick and choose.

> the courts have no choice but to take everyone at their word

In matters of religion, yes, that is true.

> which seems an extreme position

Perhaps. But this is where you end up when you grant special privileges to religious beliefs. There are logically only three options: grant privileges to no religions, grant privileges to all religions, or grant privileges to some religions and deny them to others. The First Amendment rules out the third option.

Unknown said...

The courts have to decide what is a religion, and what is acceptable religious practice, and that's based on common law-- existing case law and statute.

For instance, the government has had to decide if your religion exempts you from paying taxes, getting homeowners insurance, and getting vaccinated (the Amish).

Likewise, the courts have to decide whether a religion is a sincere religion, or just an excuse to break the law, such as in the case of illegal drug usage. Churches such as the Native American Church and Santo Daime are allowed to use otherwise illegal drugs, but certain other groups have been denied the use of drugs as sacraments, such as Rastafarians (marijuana use was not strictly connected to religious service, but done "any time") and another gentleman whose name escapes me, who just claimed that marijuana was his religion. Here is the circuit court decision allowing the Santo Daime church to use Daime tea:

I find it acceptably within the domain of government to decide if a religion is a real religion (my personal opinion is that Pastafarianism is a social critique or performance art, not a sincere religion), and what religious practices that would otherwise be illegal, impinge upon others, or place a burden on the state (like the prison system) are allowable.