What About the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

We Americans treasure religious liberty. We’re just a bit vague on the definition of “religious.” (Actually, we aren’t too clear on what we mean by “liberty,” either.)

I still recall a conference I attended early in my academic career; I approached a religious studies scholar who had delivered what I considered a brilliant paper, and during the ensuing discussion, she shared her belief that the First Amendment should simply have protected “intellectual integrity”–that the problem with specific references to religious liberty was that they required courts to decide what should count as “religious” for purposes of constitutional analysis.

And what should count as “religious” has been–and remains– hotly contested.

Think, for example, about the awkward history of conscientious objector jurisprudence. For a long time, courts only recognized moral objections to engaging in combat if the person registering the objection belonged to a “recognized” (um..established??) pacifist church. Others claiming that status were challenged. But–as the courts ultimately came to recognize– there are many non-theists and members of other denominations and religions who have sincere and deeply-felt pacifist beliefs.

More recently, of course, we are seeing people claim religious sanction for a right to discriminate, and it is hard not to suspect that their “sincerely held beliefs” have more to do with bigotry than godliness.

The point is, it is by no means clear what sorts of beliefs and conduct can properly be labeled “religious,” as opposed to “political,” “ideological,” “philosophical” or even delusional.

I receive Sightings, a digital newsletter from the University of Chicago Divinity School, and that publication recently referenced a Massachusetts lawsuit raising precisely that issue:

But courts do get asked about “religion,” and can’t wiggle out of exchanges on this. It was easier to define in historic cultures where a manifestation of religion, e.g. “an established church” got to define religion in “we” versus “they” terms. Today, propose a parlor game in which participants have to define the term, and listen. If “established” versions you will hear are too constricted, others are too protean. One hears then: “if everything is religious, then nothing is religious.” Now, pity the people who are called to fight over religious subjects not in games but in courts…

O’Loughlin’s case involves the keepers of a Massachusetts “religious” shrine whose property is tax-exempt for those parts of its workings which strike “everyone” as being focally religious: worshiping, nurturing, shaping spiritual life. But, strapped-for-tax-revenue neighbors of the shrine-keepers argue, should parts of the property used for what some would call “secular” purposes be tax-exempt because the owners or custodians of the shrine deem them and claim them to be ‘religious’?

Unsurprisingly, religious leaders of several traditions filed a brief in support of the tax-exempt status of the entire facility.

The notion that local assessors or any government actor is equipped or would presume to deem whether one use of a religious organization’s property or another falls within the definition of ‘religious worship’ is antithetical to religious freedom,” said the brief, signed by leaders representing Jewish, Christian, and Muslim organizations. Catholic bishops in Massachusetts, including Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, also weighed in, arguing in a brief that the shrine’s grounds offer “communion with nature,” which “is a core religious activity with ancient roots in Christianity’s past.”

Gee–I “commune with nature” in distinctly unChristian fashion…But I digress.

According to this argument, courts and other secular institutions are simply precluded from drawing distinctions between properties used for authentically religious purposes (whatever those are) and those simply owned by religious organizations–although to the extent properties are tax-exempt, secular taxpayers’ rates increase. (Someone has to pay for the public services such properties enjoy–streets, police and fire protection, garbage collection and the like.)

I can’t help thinking of Flip Wilson’s inspired “Church of What’s Happening Now” rants (you youngsters can Google that), or the more contemporary “worship” of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Despite rightwing rhetoric, it isn’t the LGBT community that is demanding “special rights.”


  1. Of course legislators will in time be forced to reckon with and reconcile this and while the religious world will loudly proclaim this as a secular intrusion into the religious world the opposite is in fact true. The trouble is that the religious world has become more secular at least for tax purposes.

    I think that the main reason that it hasn’t been reckoned with yet is that humans aren’t up to the job and just the tax implications are too profound.

    What a mess we got ourselves into.

    The trouble with faith or Faith is that it’s what we assume when we cannot know. So it is by definition impossible to categorize in any precise way. It’s all opinion and that’s something that we’re all free to have. Why should those with these opinions have to pay the taxes for those with those opinions?

    I personally think that we’ve gotten ourselves into bigger messes now like climate change so this one will have to wait.

    Maybe we’ll be smarter some day.

  2. Perhaps someday the GOP will release their hostages, Congress and SCOTUS, and then we the people can return to using them to make important decisions for the future us.

  3. What will the courts do with the Chirch of Cannabis? It has a space for communal meetings, a theology (sort of, but sincerely held), a charismatic spiritual leader (Bill Levin), and recognizes a sacrament (communal use of cannabis). Sounds like a religion to me.

  4. I know a few groupies who “shoot up” or “smoke” their religion. Someone called it “the opiate of the people”, getting high on faith and enthusiastically pushing it on others, especially on children, and calling it proselytizing or propagating the faith, then cutting school lunches and criminalizing this or that.

  5. “although to the extent properties are tax-exempt, secular taxpayers’ rates increase. (Someone has to pay for the public services such properties enjoy–streets, police and fire protection, garbage collection and the like.)”

    This is exactly why property owned by religious organizations should be taxed. The citizens who don’t associate with them or benefit from them should not be held hostage and be forced to pay higher taxes to cover the public services those religious organizations receive.

  6. I have argued for years that real property and public services afforded churches and other religious groups should be taxed and that such groups should be required to pay for public services in the same proportion other real estate owners and citizens pay (and I am a church member). Why should religion (however defined in whatever contorted language by courts) enjoy an exemption from carrying their share of the load, and what about the rights of those who have no religion (however defined) not to have to pay for the roads, sewers, power grids, fire and police protection etc. enjoyed for free by their fellow citizens because the latter are members of religious groups? Since when should the general populace be required to pay for a specific group’s responsibilities, whatever such groups’ noble philosophy? Substantial revenues are not only being lost as a result of such an unfair exemption; we are forcing the unchurched to pay what such groups should be paying, and at a higher rate due to such exemptions. I say that is unfair and wrong. I parenthetically note that the general populace is also paying more taxes than they would otherwise be paying because of our legislative gifts to Wall Street, which I think is hardly a noble endeavor, but that is a topic for another time.

  7. Nancy, I certainly agree that the property of churches should be taxed. Taxation has nothing to do with either the establishment or the free exercise of religion. To make it more palatable, perhaps tax dollars paid by churches could be earmarked to help the poor such as support for township trustees based on the number of poor people served.

  8. As per Mark Passio , and Jordan Maxwell – Religion comes from the Latin- Relegare . (sp.) It means to bind , or hold back – the truth , and human spiritual mind development .
    Government comes from Gubinare’ – to control , and ment comes from mense – mind.
    As religion is mind control , so is government . They are inter-changeable.
    The driving force behind BOTH forms of mind control is COMMERCE. If commerce is involved , then it IS religion. And should be dealt with on THAT level – ONLY.

  9. As retired clergy who taught ‘church administration’ at the seminary level, I always shared the reality of the seminary in which I taught. They participated in Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) in Philadelphia. PA, IN, and NJ are 3 states which have 4-8 municipalities participating in 2010. A full report can be downloaded from http://www.lincolninst.edu/pubs/1853_Payments-in-Lieu-of-Taxes. There are other options which recognize the community service offered by non-profits which extent beyond the assumed limited access to charitable organizations.

  10. It seems plausible that the logic in the Constitution was based on the then approximation that churches deserved special financial treatment as they were the welfare system and as such provided essential services for the greater good.

    Since then government has assumed welfare responsibility and churches have largely backed away from it due to the pressure of too many poor vs the Pastor’s need for a private jet.

    Legislation is called upon to keep up with reality but pastor’s influential enough to con their congregations into a private jet are a formidable force to be reckoned with.

    Hopefully the elderly who are the sucker base for those pastors will follow their money into gone forever and in a few decades the Legislative and Judicial branches will be returned to we the people and progress through law will be restored.

    We can hope can’t we?

  11. RStewart’s link to the PILOT program is interesting reading. I would suggest that instead of being a voluntary program it should be required. The issue with the values of the properties owned, their location in a community, the services they render to the local. state and/or nation can be done in a fair and equitable manner with knowledgeable and expert input. The religious status of those organizations is a matter for the courts to decide. Once the designation is recognized and enforced, then the balance of benefits delivered vs. consumption of public services should be determined by elected officers (assessor?). Financial outlay, number of clients served and volunteer hours rendered are just a few measures of those services. We have mechanisms in place to evaluate secular properties that have been granted special tax deferrals/abatements because of the services, jobs, etc. they supposedly bring to the public good. Property assessments are challenged all the time. There appear to be solutions to the issue already being used in many areas of the country. It seems that we have a answer already. The pushback is coming from those who think they will lose too much financially. How do we know until we look at it fairly?

  12. Moving away from the more philosophical issues around birth control for employees of religious organizations. From the latest from SCOTUS, it appears that they want to not even have to tell anyone that they will not provide birth control for their employees. I have some sympathy if they don’t want to tell the Federal Government that they won’t provide birth control for each individual under the policy – that is getting close to giving permission for each individual to have it. On the other hand, if they are objecting to telling the Federal Government that for a particular policy they will not provide birth c0ntrol, then my sympathy vanishes. In this situation, to refuse to even inform the Federal Government that they won’t provide birth control through this policy is to say that not only do they not want to provide birth control, but that they want to see that their employees do not get birth control, and this is the step from not violating someone’s religious rights to allowing someone to use their religion to violate someone else’s rights.

  13. Pete, I believe you are correct that churches were originally tax exempt because they served as the welfare system for our country.

    It is way past time that we eliminate the religious organizations’ special tax-free status since they haven’t served in that capacity for many many decades.

    Peggy, while your idea for taxes to be earmarked for the township trustees is good on the surface, we have a serious problem with Indiana township trustees and their boards hoarding tax revenue and not disbursing it to people who need it. News stories have also exposed many township trustees who use the money to provide themselves and their family members with very comfy lifestyles, while ignoring the needs of the poor.

  14. I’ve often wondered why women who’ve had abortions do not share their stories or come ‘out of the closet’, so to speak. Members of the LGBT community have, and are, removing the prior mystique of being gay or lesbian simply by speaking about their personal experiences in open forums, and I applaud them for their honesty and integrity. Yet women who’ve had abortions, a perfectly legal elective procedure since 1974, seem unwilling to speak about their choices and experiences to terminate their pregnancies.

    As I’ve written here before, I opted to terminate two pregnancies, one in 1974, shortly after Roe vs Wade, and another in 1975, and both elective procedures were paid for in full by my husband’s Blue Cross/Blue Shield group health insurance via his status as a Municipal employee at a large eastern sea coastal City in Virginia. If women don’t speak up and speak out about their experiences, write our narratives, using the current jargon, then our narratives will be written by those who’ve never elected to have an abortion.

  15. Re: above post

    As my husband tells me, ‘Just because you’ve made a segue from one topic to another topic inside your brain, doesn’t mean the rest of us are following.’

  16. The simplest solution is to tax church property and church income. I find it hard to understand why belief in mythical beings should convey special status.

  17. It would be interesting to know how the author of the paper you mentioned in the second paragraph would have imagined the courts determining “intellectual integrity.” The “I know it when I see it” defense? Seeing into people’s hearts is difficult at best and, as you say, the religion defense seems to cover up much that is political or even just bigoted. Most atheists and scientists would claim that all religion is delusional.

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