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What Is A Religion? Or “I know It When I See It.” By Phillip J. Griego

One of the great things about the practice of law is that it is never dull or boring. A new unpublished case confirms this opinion. Plaintiff and appellant Marshel Copple filed a case under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) alleging religious discrimination and harassment, failure to accommodate religious practices, retaliation based on his religion, and constructive discharge for his religious practices. Copple asserted California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s requirement that he work overtime violated a tenet of his religion that he sleeps at least eight hours per day.   And what religion was that?—Sun Worshipping Atheism — a religion he created and of which he is the only member. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s entry of summary judgment against Mr. Copple. The court’s reasoning is instructive.

  1. Sun Worshipping Atheism is Not a Religion as Defined Under FEHA.

The court’s treatment of this issue reminds me of the obscenity case of Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964), wherein Justice Potter Stewart wrote in his short concurrence that “hard-core pornography” was hard to define, but that “I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”[1]  Relying on earlier cases the court identified three “objective guidelines” to “make the sometimes subtle distinction between a religion and a secular belief system” for FEHA purposes.

First, a religion addresses fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters. Well, what could be more clear? Ask the court:

Sun Worshipping Atheism does not “address fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters.” Rather, it deals with living a healthy lifestyle. The sun is worshipped because there are health benefits that derive from it. Plaintiff fashioned Sun Worshipping Atheism after reviewing scientific data to determine healthy practices that have a positive effect on the mind, body, and soul, which he claims are all the same thing. Plaintiff’s statement that his beliefs address “[t]he nature of the universe, nature of human beings, what we need to do to be moral,” is a mere conclusion, insufficient to prove this element.

Second, a religion is comprehensive in nature; it consists of a belief-system as opposed to an isolated teaching.

Sun Worshipping Atheism is not comprehensive and does not express a full set of beliefs. As discussed above, its list of practices reveal that it deals with living a healthy lifestyle, “mind-body wellbeing,” based on scientific facts synthesized by plaintiff. These include eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep. This is to “get the most out of your human and social function as your [sic] conscious of it now.”

Third, a religion can often be recognized by the presence of certain formal and external signs.

Sun Worshipping Atheism lacks any outward signs. Although not conclusive, this is a strong indication the belief system is not a religious creed. There are no rituals, services, or religious holy days, nor is there any structure where its beliefs are observed. Moreover, there is no hierarchy or organization, not even an informal one. In fact, plaintiff is the only member.

  1. Because Sun Worshipping Atheism is Not a Protected Religion, None of Plaintiff’s Causes of Action survived.

The court concluded that Sun Worshipping Atheism is a “personal philosophy . . . and a way of life” under FEHA’s definition. Purely moral or ethical beliefs that are held with the strength of religious convictions may not qualify for protection under the FEHA. Rather, the requires that the belief, observance, or practice occupy a place in the employee’s life of importance parallel to that of traditionally recognized religions—something more than a strongly held view of right and wrong.

This case illustrates the “deep and imponderable” question of where to draw the line between freedom of expression and government regulation. It will continue to challenge our courts and legislature now and in the future.  Always check with counsel or other human resource consultants before making decisions.

The Law Office of Phillip J. Griego
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San Jose, CA 95113
Tel. 408-293-6341
Original article by Phillip J. Griego of the Law Office of Phillip J. Griego.
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[1] Louis Malle’s The Lovers