After the California Department of Corrections disciplined corrections officer Marshel Copple, he sued it for failing to accommodate his religion. What religion, you ask? “Sun Worshipping Atheism.” Never heard of it? Maybe that’s because Copple, who created the religion, is its only member. Its core beliefs include “rational worship of the sun,” getting at least 8 hours of sleep, eating and drinking “when you need to,” and getting fresh air.
The dispute arose when Copple refused to work overtime. His employer told him, as it had when he applied, that overtime was part of the job. Copple responded that working overtime would interfere with his practice of his religion (the tenets of which he posted on the internet the day before). He later resigned and sued the Department of Corrections for religious discrimination. The trial court tossed the case out on summary judgment and the appellate court affirmed.
Sadly, the decision (which you can read here: Copple v. CDC Opinion) was not based on the principle that you can’t make up a religion which you’re the only member of and demand to be accommodated. The court, in fact, took pains to note that it was “not judging the intrinsic value of plaintiff’s beliefs or” his sincerity. Instead, it relied on the fact that Sun Worshipping Atheism (like veganism) does not express a full set of beliefs and there are no rituals, services, holy days, or the like. It wasn’t religious discrimination because Copple’s personal philosophy didn’t rise to the level of being a religion.
- For employers, understand that the term “religious” in “religious discrimination” can extend beyond any belief system you’ve ever heard of. Get qualified advice before denying an accommodation request.
- For employees, if you’re making up a religion that you want to be taken seriously, it’s probably best to leave “Atheism” out of the name.
Copple should look on the bright side. A lot of popular religions start off with tales of persecution and oppression. In a few hundred years, his could really take off!