HOMER, Alaska (AP) — Ever since the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly’s controversial policy regarding invocations before meetings was updated and finalized in 2016, people across the peninsula have been voicing their support or frustration, some more vigorously than others.
One man, McNeil Canyon area resident Barrett Fletcher, is going so far as to start up a local congregation of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster on the lower peninsula.
The church, called FSM for short, was formed in 2005 as a response to the Kansas State Board of Education’s hearings on evolution in schools — its founder sent a letter about FSM as a way to argue against teaching creationism in biology classes.
FSM followers believe an invisible and undetectable monster made of spaghetti and meatballs created the universe after drinking heavily, and that his “noodly appendages” hold great power. Many label the movement as satire, but it is recognized as an official religion in New Zealand and the Netherlands, and supporters have been working for several years to gain official registration as a church in Poland. Religions as a belief, without official registration as a church or oganization, are legal in Poland.
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The United States has not made a similar recognition, and a federal judge in Nebraska ruled in 2016 that FSM is a parody religion, rather than an official religion.
Still, Pastafarians, as the church’s followers are called, are able to purchase certificates of ordination through the church’s website in order to perform weddings, and many groups have gatherings somewhat similar to a Catholic mass — with pasta and beer substituted for the more traditional symbols.
Fletcher said his reason for starting the local congregation of Pastafarians is to make a point and ultimately effect change when it comes to the borough’s invocation policy.
The policy was updated in October 2016 to state that that only a member of a religious group with an “established presence in the Kenai Peninsula Borough” may give the invocation. So may chaplains serving fire departments, law enforcement agencies, hospitals or other such organizations.
Fletcher called the idea of an invocation before a government meeting offensive, and said that if one exists it should be open to members of all religions without a government test to weigh the legitimacy of one religion against another, referring to the requirement of an “established presence.”
“I think you just pound the gavel and call the meeting to order,” he said.
The borough has been involved in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska since December 2016 over the policy, which the ACLU claims is discriminatory. Homer resident Elise Boyer, a practicing Jew and one of about 50 of “the Frozen Chosen,” as the local Jewish community calls itself, joined the lawsuit as one of the plaintiffs in January 2017 after her request to give an invocation was denied according to the established presence stipulation.
According to a 2015 Homer News article on Judaism in Homer, Boyer has hosted gatherings for Jewish people on high holy days like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. According to Jewish law, a minimum of 10 people must be present to read the Torah.
“My hope is that the new assembly and mayor will just drop the invocation and the whole thing will become moot,” Fletcher said. “That’s really the whole point here.”
Lance Hunt et al. v. Kenai Peninsula Borough, the lawsuit challenging the borough’s invocation policy, will probably go before an Anchorage Superior Court judge this month, said ACLU spokesperson Casey Reynolds on Tuesday. Both sides will present written and oral arguments soon, he said.
“Our clients have deeply held religious beliefs. One of them is Jewish,” Reynolds said. “They are covered under the Constitution.”
Fletcher applied to deliver the invocation at the assembly’s next meeting in Homer, in September 2018, which was denied by assembly president Wayne Ogle.
“We need to establish this (presence) so that we can go on to either push the assembly to reconsider that choice of an invocation for the next Homer meeting in September, or join the lawsuit,” he said.
Fletcher has created a Facebook page for the First Lower Peninsula Congregation of Pastafarians, and hosted an inaugural gathering to gauge interest in the movement at his home near McNeil Canyon on the Winter Solstice. With about nine people in attendance, he said there seemed to be enthusiasm about holding future meetings, perhaps more centrally located in Homer.
The gathering boasted three different kinds of pasta, Fletcher said.
With several months left before the assembly’s next Homer meeting in September, Fletcher said there’s plenty of time both for FSM to establish a strong, regular presence in Homer and for the invocation to potentially be dropped entirely.
“I may need his noodly appendages to keep this thing going,” he said of the FSM.
According to the invocation schedule on the borough’s website, Pastor Eric Rozeboom of the Alaska Bible Institute is scheduled to give the invocation at the Homer meeting in September. The borough assembly resolution that set its invocation policy cites several court opinions allowing government bodies to allow an invocation before meetings.
The policy says it “is intended to be and shall be applied in a way that is all-inclusive of every diverse religious association serving the residents of the Kenai Peninsula Borough.”
The authenticity of a religious association is determined “by referring to the criteria used by the Interal Revenue Service in its determination of those organizations that would legitimately qualify for I.R.C 501(c)(3) exempt status,” the policy says.
Failing a successful invocation given by a Pastafarian at the Homer assembly meeting or a complete drop of the policy, Fletcher said Homer Pastafarians are prepared to spend resources and time on supporting the lawyers in the ACLU lawsuit.
“If you’re going to have a supernatural god, I think it should be one that is more reflective of reality,” he said. “And the FSM created the universe one night when he was a little bit too drunk, and that’s why things are they way they are.”
Information from: The Homer (Alaska) News, http://www.homernews.com