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Frank Fredericks

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Protecting Pastafarians: When Does Religious Freedom Become Ridiculous?

Posted: 07/14/11 01:57 PM ET

While doing my daily routine of scanning religious freedom articles, I came across a rather striking headline: "'Pastafarian' Wins Religious Freedom Right to Wear Pasta Strainer for Driving Licence."

To save you the effort of reading the original story, essentially a guy in Austria got the pasta strainer head piece in his official photo identification on grounds of religious freedom. Pastafarianism, according to Wikipedia, is known as the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which was founded in 2005 "when Oregon State physics graduate Bobby Henderson wrote an open letter about a 'Flying Spaghetti Monster' as a satirical protest against the decision by the Kansas State Board of Education to permit the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution." But what happens if his pasta strainer became a yarmulke or a hijab?

This raises a very interesting question about what constitutes absurdity when it comes to religious freedom. Obviously, putting a pot on your head and claiming allegiance to a hovering pasta dish best described as a punch-line to a joke doesn't warrant religious freedom protection. While religious freedom is an essential component to a democratic and free society, most would find this to be too ridiculous to warrant protection.

"But isn't all religion absurd?" Even if my opinion is a clear "no," the diversity of perspectives blurs the line between sanctity and silliness. The slightly older faith tradition of Rastafari (whose adherents prefer not to be referred to with "-ism") apparently crosses the line of what's protected under religious freedom. Rastas, numbering only in the hundreds of thousands, recognize Haile Selassie I as God incarnate, and believe that marijuana is a gateway to spiritual enlightenment. Yet, this practice is not protected under religious freedom, limiting the religious practice of this community. While one can recognize the pragmatic aspects of rejecting a religious exemption, including the likelihood of every pothead in America claiming Rastafari observance, this still should trouble us that a religious practice can be prohibited even when practitioners are not hurting themselves or one another.

So then religious drug use is out, right? Then why was the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1994 passed? This law allows the use of peyote, mescaline rendered from cactus, to be used by Native Americans in their ceremonial traditions. Clearly psychedelics are considered higher class drugs than marijuana, so why are freedoms granted to one religious community and not the other?

Constitutionally, we value diversity of opinion in America, and everyone -- from conservative to liberal, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu and non-religious -- cherishes the protections we each have to dress, act, think and speak differently. If we must err in one direction between absurd and restrictive, I would have to embrace the absurd. Regardless of how I feel about the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I know that even if everyone considered my own faith tradition as inane, I would demand my right to express my faith freely.

Few would argue that religious freedom should protect the ability to hurt others, ourselves or society at large. As an example, no one can get away with murder by claiming that human sacrifice is part of their religious expression. But what about practices which could be considered by outsiders as ludicrous, and even illegal? While intention plays a significant role, I question whether a governmental body effectively can and ethically should rule on what is fair game for religious freedom. In the short term, I think that means I'll need to put up with more kitchen wear apparel in official identification cards.

 

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