A small news item, tucked away in the back pages of my newspaper, said that across the U.S. more and more people were citing “religious exemptions” to avoid, well, to avoid almost anything they don’t like.
The current issue is COVID-19 vaccinations. In the past, the “religious exemption” has been used by employers to exclude abortion from health plans. To refuse to hire gays and lesbians. To reject same-sex marriages.
And so on.
According to Associated Press, “Religious objections, once used sparingly around the country… are becoming a much more widely used loophole…”
That “loophole,” says AP, “was enshrined in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which says that employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees who object to work requirements because of ‘sincerely held’ religious beliefs.”
It goes on, “A religious belief does not have to be recognized by an organized religion; it can be new, unusual, and seem illogical or unreasonable…”
I wonder if anyone cited Pastafarianism for their religious exemption.
You haven’t heard of Pastafarianism? The name, obviously, is a play on Rastafarianism, a movement that originated in Jamaica about 90 years ago. It considered Haile Selassie, then the Emperor of Ethiopia, as either Christ or God incarnate.
Aside from the similarity of its name, Pastafarianism has no connection with Rastfarianism, Pastafarianism was created by a graduate physics student Bobby Henderson, in 2005. Henderson was protesting a decision by the Kansas State Board of Education to teach intelligent design as an alternative to evolution.
If “intelligent design” — the belief that an invisible God up in the sky laid out a detailed blueprint for life before time began — deserved to be taught in classrooms because it was a deeply held religious belief, and therefore equal to scientific research, Henderson demanded equal time in science classrooms for his "Flying Spaghetti Monster" in the sky.
Henderson told the Board of Education, “I don't have a problem with religion. What I have a problem with is religion posing as science.”
The Board, like Queen Victoria, was not amused.
Even so, Pastafarianism raises the question of what qualifies as a religion.
Is the Flying Spaghetti Monster of Pastafarianism any less credible than an angel named Moroni telling Joseph Smith where to dig some engraved gold plates out of a hillside?
With Moroni’s help, Smith translated an unknown language into the Book of Mormon. His translation can’t be tested, though,because Smith returned the golden plates to Moroni. The angel hasn’t been heard from since.
Yet today, Mormonism — more correctly, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints — is the third largest established
religion in the U.S., with about 17 million members worldwide.
It certainly qualifies for “religious exemptions.”
Or consider Mary Baker Eddy. In the early 1800s, it was unthinkable for a mere woman to claim she understood the Bible better than men had. specially a woman who had had three marriages.
But she declared she had found the secrets of healing in the Bible (possibly with some help from her reading of Hindu Vedanta teachings. She explicitly rejection of drugs, hygiene, and medicine, based on her observation that Jesus did not use these methods for healing:
But the church she founded has more followers than Joan of Arc. Smithsonian Magazine named her one of the "100 Most Significant Americans of All Time.”
For that matter, would Jesus himself have qualified as authority for a “religious exemption” during his lifetime?
I doubt it. The Christian gospels portray him a maverick, an outsider. Crowds gathered to hear him. But none of the established branches of Judaism ever granted him a seal of approval.
The Roman governor of the region certainly didn’t offer Jesus an exemption for his “sincerely held” religious beliefs.
These scattered examples suggest to me that the validity of a religious faith does not depend on its doctrines. Or on how “sincerely held” its members convictions are. Or even on getting an imprimatur from an existing religion.
Rather, they depend on time. If after sufficient time, the religion still has a significant body of followers, secular authorities will accept it.
The secular validates the religious.
Fifty years ago, a fellow journalist tried to have his home registered as a “house of worship,” and thus exempt from property taxes. Like Pastafarianism, his effort was designed to reveal a loophole in municipal tax laws.
If he had kept his spoof going for 50 years, seculr authorities might well have considered a legitimate religious expression today.
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org