Fired after refusing to remove an eyebrow ring, a former Costco employee is suing the discount chain for violating her religious freedom. She claims that the ring is an expression of her spirituality, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has agreed. Now she’s in federal court seeking $2 million.
It turns out that the plaintiff belongs to something called the Church of Body Modification, based in Portland, Oregon. According to its website, the church is a “nondenominational congregation that teaches ownership over our own bodies,” and “whose members practice an assortment of ancient body modification rites which we believe are essential to our spirituality.”
A visit to the site suggests that it is a sincere operation, and not some scam for exploiting the tax advantages granted to religious groups. Becoming a minister (cost: $50 per year) means filling out a lengthy application with questions designed to gauge one’s commitment to the “body modification community.”
An entire section of the application deals with the candidate’s “knowledge of sterilization.” For a moment I assumed this had to do with human reproduction, an issue on which many religions take strong stands. Then I noticed the reference to “cross contamination,” and realized what sort of sterilization they meant. (Duh.)
It’s easy to make fun of this, yet from a neutral point of view, these people have as much right as anyone to call themselves a church. Certainly the U.S. government has no business judging the validity of their beliefs. The EEOC was right to rule that an eyebrow ring can be a religious practice. But does Costco have to put up with it?
What if I decided tomorrow that I could properly express my spirituality only by singing old Rolling Stones tunes at the top of my lungs at certain hours of the day? Could my employer legally tell me to stop? Given my singing voice, you can be sure he would want to.
As it happens I work at home, so the only people to hear me would be my wife and child, neither of whom is terribly concerned about the First Amendment (particularly since we live outside the U.S.). I’m sure you get the point, however.
Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — when I was a freshman in college, a friend and I entertained the idea of registering with the university chaplain’s office as Satanists. Neither of us had the slightest inclination toward devil worship; we just wondered how far we could push the school’s vaunted tolerance.
After all, we reasoned, the officially recognized Humanist (i.e., atheist) chaplain enjoyed access to a building that had been built years before as an exclusively Christian sanctuary. On what grounds could anyone deny us the right to hold a Black Mass in the same space? (We wouldn’t have actually done that, just demanded the right.)
We had enough good taste, even at the age of 18, not to follow through; and it may be that our university, a private institution with several sane people in positions of authority, would have told us to go to Hell (which of course we would have had to take as a compliment). But those were more innocent times. Nowadays, I’ll bet, Satanists on campus are as quaint as beanies and coonskin coats.
Universities can afford to be tolerant; business is another matter. So what is an employer supposed to do in a situation like Costco’s? The only solution I can think of is for the company to declare itself a church, and adopt teachings that expressly forbid the wearing of eyebrow rings or whatever else the boss wants to keep his workers from doing. This might seem far-fetched, I know, but all it takes is faith.
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