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Cavanaugh v. Bartelt

United States District Court, D. Nebraska

April 12, 2016

RANDY BARTELT, et al., Defendants.


John M. Gerrard United States District Judge

The plaintiff, Stephen Cavanaugh, is a prisoner in the Nebraska State Penitentiary. Cavanaugh says he is a "Pastafarian, " i.e., a believer in the divine "Flying Spaghetti Monster" who practices the religion of "FSMism." He is suing the defendants, who are all prison officials, because of their refusal to accommodate his religious requests. Filing 1. The defendants move to dismiss his claims. Filing 20.

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." 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.


Cavanaugh's complaint actually contains very little detail on FSMism or its purported requirements-perhaps because the deliberate absurdity of its provisions would undermine his argument. So, before addressing Cavanaugh's specific allegations, it will be helpful to examine FSMism in more detail.

1. FSMism

FSMism can only be understood in the context in which it arose: as a response to the theory that the origins of life on Earth can be found in "intelligent design." See generally Kitzmiller v. Dover Area Sch. Dist., 400 F.Supp.2d 707 (2005).

The religious movement known as Fundamentalism began in nineteenth century America as a response to social changes, new religious thought and Darwinism. Religiously motivated groups pushed state legislatures to adopt laws prohibiting public schools from teaching evolution, culminating in the Scopes "monkey trial" of 1925.
In 1968, a radical change occurred in the legal landscape when in Epperson v. Arkansas, the Supreme Court struck down Arkansas's statutory prohibition against teaching evolution. Religious proponents of evolution thereafter championed "balanced treatment" statutes requiring public-school teachers who taught evolution to devote equal time to teaching the biblical view of creation; however, courts realized this tactic to be another attempt to establish the Biblical version of the creation of man.
Fundamentalist opponents of evolution responded with a new tactic . . . which was ultimately found to be unconstitutional under the First Amendment, namely, to utilize scientific-sounding language to describe religious beliefs and then to require that schools teach the resulting "creation science" or "scientific creationism" as an alternative to evolution.
In Edwards v. Aguillard, . . . the Supreme Court held that a requirement that public schools teach "creation science" along with evolution violated the Establishment Clause. The import of Edwards is that the Supreme Court turned the proscription against teaching creation science in the public school system into a national prohibition.

Kitzmiller, 400 F.Supp.2d at 711-12 (citations omitted). The concept of "intelligent design" was then promoted; generally described, it maintains that Earth's ecosystem displays complexity suggesting intelligent design by a "master intellect." Id. at 718. But unlike its predecessors, the "official position" of intelligent design is that the designer is not expressly identified as a deity. Id. at 718-19.

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. See, Bobby Henderson, 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." Kitzmiller, 400 F.Supp.2d at 745-46. 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. See FSM Gospel at 3-4.[1] 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." Id. at 11.

Consider the theory of Evolution. To their credit, Intelligent Design advocates have successfully argued that their alternative theory deserves as much attention as Evolution, since neither can be considered fact. This is a valid point, but Evolution is hardly the only theory in trouble.
It seems strange that Evolution is singled out as "just a theory" when there are so many basic ideas in science that remain unproven, yet are still taught as fact. The objections to teaching Evolution have only illustrated this point further: Alternative theories must be taught in order to give our young students' minds a broad foundation. The Intelligent Design proponents make a compelling, and totally legitimate, argument that if a theory has not been proven, then one suggested theory is just as good as another.
Take gravity, for example: the force of attraction between massive particles. We know a great deal about the properties of gravity, yet we know nothing about the cause of the force itself. Why are particles attracted to one other? If we review the literature, we find a lot of material dealing with the properties of gravity, but very little dealing with the underlying cause of this attraction. Until we have a proven answer to this question, it seems irresponsible to instruct students in what is, ultimately, just a theory. However, if we must discuss the theory of gravity at all, then it's reasonable that all suggested theories should be given equal time, since none have been proven or disproven. Therefore, I formally submit that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is behind this strange and often misunderstood force.
What if it is He, pushing us down with His Noodly Appendages, that causes this force? He is invisible, remember, and is undetectable by current instruments, so in theory it is possible. And the fact that the gravitational powers of the Spaghetti Monster haven't been disproven makes it all the more likely to be true. We can only guess as to His motives, but it's logical to assume that if He is going to such trouble, there is a good reason. It could be that He doesn't want us floating off earth into space, or maybe just that He enjoys touching us-we may never know.
And while it's true that we don't have any empirical evidence to back up this theory, keep in mind the precedent set by Intelligent Design proponents. Not only is observable, repeatable evidence not required to get an alternative theory included in the curriculum, but simply poking holes in established theory may be enough. In this case, the established theory of gravity makes no mention as to the cause of the force; it merely presents the properties of it. I fully expect, then, that this FSM theory of gravity will be admitted into accepted science with a minimum of apparently unnecessary bureaucratic nonsense, including the peer-review process.
. . . .
No one is saying that the FSM theory of gravity is necessarily true, but at the very least, it's based on sound science, sound enough to be included in the curriculum with the other nonproven theories. Until the currently taught theory of gravity, known as Newtonism, is proven as fact, alternatives should be taught as well.

Id. at 3-5 (emphasis in original). FSMism is, then, a comedic extrapolation of the philosophical argument known as "Russell's Teapot": it rejects the idea that a hypothesis can be proved by an absence of evidence disproving it.[2]

But the FSM Gospel does not stop there: it sets forth-or, at least, follows the form of-a catechism of FSMism. Id., passim. The blurb on back of the FSM Gospel conveys the flavor:

Can I get a "Ramen" from the congregation?! Behold the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM), today's fastest-growing carbohydrate-based religion. According to church founder Bobby Henderson, the universe and all life within it were created by a mystical and divine being: the Flying Spaghetti Monster. What drives the FSM's devout followers, aka Pastafarians? Some say it's the assuring touch from the FSM's Noodly Appendage. There are those who love the worship service, which is conducted in Pirate-Speak and attended by congregants in dashing buccaneer garb. Still others are drawn to the Church's flimsy moral standards, religious holidays every Friday, and the fact that Pastafarian Heaven is way cooler. Does your Heaven have a Stripper Factory and a Beer Volcano? Intelligent Design has finally met its match-and it has nothing to do with apes or the Olive Garden of Eden.
Within these pages, Bobby Henderson outlines the true facts-dispelling such malicious myths as Evolution ("only a theory"), science ("only a lot of theories"), and whether we're really descended from apes (fact: Humans share 95 percent of their ...

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