A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed the case of an inmate in Nebraska demanding that prison officials accommodate his worship of the Flying Spaghetti Monster because it is not a religion but a riposte of intelligent design.
The inmate, Stephen Cavanaugh, who is serving a 4 to 8-year term for assault and weapons charges at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, filed a lawsuit in September 2014 demanding that worship of the Flying Spaghetti Monster referred to as "FSMism" be given the same treatment as other established religions.
"I would like a court order mandating that FSMism receive the same rights and privileges afforded to every other religion in the Department of Corrections. I would also like the defendants to be made to pay damages of the $350 filing fee, $5,000,000 pain and suffering and punitive damages," Cavanaugh wrote.
In his ruling to dismiss the case on Tuesday however, U.S. District Judge John Gerrard ruled that "FSMism" does not qualify as a religion such as those protected by the Constitution.
"The Court finds that 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. Those are important issues, and FSMism contains a serious argument — but that does not mean that the trappings of the satire used to make that argument are entitled to protection as a 'religion,'" wrote Gerrard. "Nor, the Court finds, has Cavanaugh sufficiently alleged how the exercise of his 'religion' has been substantially burdened. The Court will grant the defendants' motion to dismiss."
In his ruling, Gerrard provided a bit of a history lesson on both intelligent design and FSMism.
The concept of "intelligent design" he wrote maintains that Earth's ecosystem displays complexity suggesting intelligent design by a "master intellect." The "official position" of intelligent design is that the designer is not expressly identified as a deity.
"FSMism is a riposte to intelligent design that began with a letter to the Kansas State Board of Education when it was considering intelligent design …The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster 111-13 (2006) (FSM Gospel). The primary criticism of intelligent design — and the basis for excluding it from school science classes — is that although it purports to be 'scientific,' it is actually 'an interesting theological argument' but 'not science,'" explained Gerrard.
"The conceit of FSMism is that, because intelligent design does not identify the designer, its 'master – intellect' could just as easily be a 'Flying Spaghetti Monster' as any Judeo Christian deity — and, in fact, that there is as much scientific evidence for a Flying Spaghetti Monster as any other creator," he continued. "As the FSM Gospel explains, '[w]e are entering into an exciting time, when no longer will science be limited to natural explanations . . . . Propelled by popular opinion and local government, science is quickly becoming receptive to all logical theories, natural and supernatural alike.'"
Cavanaugh argued that he has "openly declared his beliefs for many years" and "has several tattoos proclaiming his faith." He asked that prison officials give him the same rights as other religions including "the ability to order and wear religious clothing and pendants, the right to meet for weekly worship services and classes and the right to receive communion."
The prison officials rejected his requests, according to the ruling, because they determined that FSMism was a parody religion. Cavanaugh says he was insulted by this conclusion and sued them in their official and individual capacities, seeking injunctive relief and money damages.
After examining the arguments put forward by Cavanaugh to support his case, Gerrard wrote: "The Court concludes Cavanaugh has failed to state a claim under RLUIPA or under the state or federal constitution that is plausible on its face .… Specifically, he has failed to allege facts showing that the defendants have substantially burdened a religious exercise, or that the defendants' conduct violated his constitutional rights. And Cavanaugh's claims for money damages are barred by sovereign or qualified immunity. Cavanaugh's complaint will be dismissed."