Background

In 2005 a young physic graduate took exception to the Kansas State Board of Education considering giving equal class time in biology to creationism or ‘intelligent design’ where certain features of the universe are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. He wrote a letter to the Board that was later placed on his website.  It described his beliefs that the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster and demanding equal time in class as well. Shortly thereafter, Pastafarianism, as it became known, became an Internet phenomenon. In 2006 he published The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which became a best seller, and a number of other books have followed over the years.

The case of Cavanaugh v Bartelt (United States District Court for the District of Nebraska. April 12, 2016) ruled that Flying Spaghetti Monster is a satirical parody religion rather than an actual religion. However, that case spurred legal actions across the world on different issues. For example, in 2011, an Austrian pastafarian won the legal right to be shown in his driving license photo wearing a pasta strainer on his head. He got the idea after reading that Austrian regulations allow headgear in official photos when it is worn for religious reasons. After three years of pursuing the permission and obtaining an examination certifying that he was psychologically fit to drive, the licence was confirmed. In 2014, a Brisbane tradesman was denied a driver’s licence renewal by the Department of Transport with photo with similar Pastafarian headgear.

The Issues

The first reported case involving Pastafarianism has now been decided in South Australia (Watkins v Commissioner for Corporate Affairs [2021] SACAT 10). The case concerned a review of a decision refusing to incorporate the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster Australia (CFSMA) pursuant to the Associations Incorporation Act 1985(SA) (Act), on the ground that the proposed incorporated association was not formed for a religious, educational, charitable or benevolent purpose.

The constitutional objects or purposes of the association were:

“3.1      To promote Pastafarianism;

3.2       To promote education in respect to Pastafarianism, including but not limited to educating the public as to the nature, beliefs and values of Pastafarianism;

3.3       To formalise and organise the community of Pastafarians in Australia;

3.4       To provide relief to diseased, disabled, sick, infirm, incurable, poor, destitute, helpless or unemployed persons, or the dependents of any such persons;

3.5       To support and promote the ideals of freedom and equality generally; and

3.6       Any objects consistent with the above objects as the committee may determine from time to time.”

The Commission had stated in its rejection of the application for incorporation that it was accepted that Pastafarians (members of the proposed incorporated association) had a belief in Pastafarianism, but nevertheless concluded that Pastafarianism was not itself a religion. In fact, it was a parody of religion.

The representative of the CFSMA said in response that for some, Pastafarianism was a philosophy, for others it was a social movement. She said Pastafarianism did not require a belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but rather a belief in the Universe as a whole, that everyone and everything was connected, and that doing good provided the basis of their behaviour. She said that Pastafarianism had as its basic belief that the force holding society together was manifested in the Flying Spaghetti Monster (that is, god is everywhere), but the Flying Spaghetti Monster itself is a blank canvas that can be depicted as anything you want it to be, as a metaphor for whatever might be, for individuals, the meaning of life. She said that behind this set of beliefs was a set of strong moral and ethical values.

Her explanation to the Tribunal went on to say that Pastafarianism had a god, supernatural being or principle; an ethical structure; tenets of behaviour recognised by members of the group; and a group of people who saw themselves and each other as part of that group. She told the Tribunal that the Commission referred to aspects of the proposed incorporated association’s teachings, which utilised humour as evidence that it was a parody of other religions. However, she said these examples were not “mocking” comments about other religions or religion generally but were included in Pastafarian texts and teachings in order to demonstrate that criticism of other religious practices was misguided, and to encourage Pastafarians to learn more about religion in general as well as other religions.

It emerged in evidence that there were no members of the CFSMA in South Australia, and that it had engaged in almost no activities of note.

In its consideration, the Tribunal said that more than a belief system was required to demonstrate a religion. The High Court referred to multiple indicia in the Scientology Case. Mason ACJ and Brennan, Wilson and Deane JJ, referred to a belief in a supernatural being, thing or principle, and an acceptance of canons of conduct in order to give effect to that belief. Wilson and Deane JJ also added further criteria, including that the ideas must relate to man’s nature and place in the universe and relation to things supernatural; that adherents constitute an identifiable group or groups, however loose; and that the adherents themselves see the collection of ideas and/or practices as constituting a religion.

The Tribunal took the view that the CFSMA was a mere critique or parody of religion, referring to its various texts entitled The Random Number of Not Commandments, Suggestions, contained in The Loose Canon, a holy book of the ‘church’, and part of The Old Pastament. There was also The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Proclamations of the Councils of Olive Garden, The New Pastament, The Official Pastafarian Prayer Book and Final Thoughts from Olive Garden Council-members.  There were also references to torahtellini, pastalms, apastles, the Old Testicle,  the New Testicle, the Q-tip or whatever (a parody of the Muslim Quran), and a parody of the Hindu Vedas called the Ten Little Indians.  These were allegedly ‘humorous’.

In relation to the various texts, the Tribunal said (at [67]-[68]):

Pastafarianism in its texts and practices seeks to present itself as a religion. Its adherents say they “believe” in it as a religion. Nevertheless I am satisfied that its texts are not religious texts nor intended as such: I am satisfied that they are parodic texts, developed and expressed for the purpose of mocking and satirising established religions, holding them up to ridicule and suggesting they are worthless and meaningless. The texts set up the satire by appropriating the form and language of established religious texts and taking the precepts and teachings of those religions and presenting them as merely mundane, pragmatic, or ridiculous. The Pastafarian texts do not have any intrinsic value in terms of articulating a relationship between humanity and the supernatural and humanity’s place in the universe, presenting tenets of belief and canons of behaviour and conduct to reflect and effect that relationship and relationships with others. At best the texts present ordinary moral admonitions and mundane articulations of principles of conduct present in the texts of most other established religions. I am satisfied that the Pastafarian texts present a hoax religion, a sham or parody of religion.

Therefore, the Commission’s decision not to register the CFSMA as an incorporated association was upheld.

Reflections

In some parts of the world, the promotion of such beliefs may result in dire consequences for Pastafarians and not too many centuries ago, they may have been burnt at the stake in parts of Europe. There is considerable tolerance in Australia, but this does not extend to the law being used to credential scams and shams. This is in stark contrast to many non-profit tax exemption decisions in the US jurisdiction that involve religious organisations of dubious genuineness in order to game the taxation system.

The state-based association legislation falls into two camps, those like South Australia that require associations wishing to incorporate to bring their objects within a specified class of purposes and those like Queensland, which are non-specific about purposes other than being not formed for the financial gain of its members and some other criteria. It may be that the association would have an easier route to incorporation in Queensland. However, CFSMA might have had more successful if it applied under the South Australian Act which permits incorporation “for the purpose of sport, recreation, or amusement.” [emphasis added]