A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

Bless the Flying Spaghetti Monster. (R)amen.

Flying Spaghetti Monster

By José I. Ortiz

Even those of us who consider ourselves religious must admit that some of our beliefs are probably a little far-fetched. Consider how some of these beliefs might sound to someone who had never heard of your religion before. A burning bush that speaks. A parting of the Red Sea. A virgin impregnated by God, whose child would walk on water, and later die — only to resurrect three days later.

Now, before I start getting hate mail, I would like to clarify that I believe the accounts as they are described above. But, we’re accustomed to them, so they might not strike us as bizarre as say, believing that a spaghetti-related item is a holy relic.

According to an article on NJ.com, Aaron Williams – who considers himself a Pastafarian – refused to take a pasta strainer off of his head in order to take his license photo in a Dayton Motor Vehicle Commission office. His reason? As a “Pastafarian”, the pasta strainer is a religious head covering.

Surprise, surprise! MVC staff told Mr. Williams that pasta strainers are not preapproved religious head coverings under state law. After the police were called, Mr. Williams reluctantly took the pasta strainer off of his head and eventually had his picture taken without it. He says, however, that he takes Pastafarianism “as seriously as anybody else when it comes to religious beliefs.”

Shouldn’t Mr. Williams’ right to practice his religion (no matter how obscure) be protected? Does the government recognize only certain mainstream religions? LASIS did some legal soul-searching.

The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (I’m not making this up) probably officially started in 2005. Its website says that the church has “existed in secrecy for hundreds of years” so I’ll let you decide for yourself.

Pastafarians have a wide array of “beliefs” including a delicious deity that resembles a glob of spaghetti and meatballs with eyes (and superhero-like, he flies). In more practical matters, the church rails against the teaching of intelligent design in public schools and general “crazy non-sense done in the name of religion.”

Chances are you haven’t seen a Pastafarian church across the street from a First Baptist in your town. They both, however, would have the same right to be there. According to the United States Constitution, the government cannot recognize a religion as legitimate. Or as illegitimate. The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. Many countries like Argentina, England, Denmark, and Tuvalu have official state religions, while a few others officially recognize only certain religions at a constitutional level. The United States is different.

But even here, not all religions are created equal. In two basic ways, the U.S. government confers special status to some religions, and not others.

First, the Internal Revenue Code provides for religious institutions to receive tax-exempt treatment provided they do not engage in political activity (like lobbying) and they ensure no single person receives undue economic benefit. (Whether religious institutions adhere to these conditions would make a great article –but I digress.)

Second, the U.S. Armed Forces provides for chaplains that are on a list of pre-approved religions and Christian denominations. In 2011, a group of Secular Humanists (atheists) petitioned for their group to be recognized by the military, so they could enjoy the services of paid spiritual advisors, too.

But, even without a tax break or an Armed Forces chaplain, Pastafarians have the right to practice their religion freely. And thanks to Title III of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, they may bring a claim against any institution that denies them access to public services based on their religion.

What, then, have states done to balance the need to have identifiable pictures of drivers on licenses while respecting individual citizens’ rights to practice their religious beliefs by wearing head or face coverings? According to a report by the Research center at the Counsel on American-Islamic Relations, our 50 states have several different answers. By the way, this isn’t just a Muslim (or Pastafarian) issue. Male Sikhs cover their heads, as do females of various sects in all three of the major monotheistic religions.  And some Christian Amish groups do not allow photographs of themselves of any kind to be taken, at all.

Only four states have no law or regulations on this particular issue (Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky and New Hampshire). An overwhelming majority of states have adopted measures for accommodating those who have religious reasons for wearing head or face coverings or not being photographed, some through the passage of laws and others through agency policy. New Jersey has adopted regulations within its Motor Vehicle Commission for such cases, but pasta strainers don’t make the list of accommodations.

Many “new” ethnic and religious groups in this country were scorned at first, but they have become steadily ingrained in the fabric of modern day America. Perhaps one day Mr. Williams, like his Austrian predecessor, will walk into a NJ-MVC office with his pasta strainer on, say “pasta and CHEESE” for his photo, and be accepted for the Pastafarian that he is.

In the name of the flying spaghetti monster -

Ra-men.

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