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Could “The Last Jedi” Actually Be Practicing Religion in Your Workplace?

Posted in Discrimination & Harassment, Highlight

last jediYesterday, news came out that Episode 8 (I mean, VIII) of the Star Wars series would be named “The Last Jedi”.

Which reminded me about an article in The New York Times I saw a few weeks ago that I had been meaning to write about.

Turns out there are, according a BBC report cited in the Times (I swear I did not make this number up on my own), 177,000 practitioners of Jediism in Britain.

Wait, I hear you saying. Jediism? What is that? Like a religion? For real?

Well, according an application submitted to the Charity Commission for England and Wales:

Jediism draws on “the mythology of Star Wars,” and centers on a belief in the power of the Force,” according to a Temple document used by the Charity Commission to evaluate the application. It also draws on major world religions like Hinduism and Christianity, and on “the existential phenomenology of Heidegger, Kierkegaard and Buber.”

The application as it turns out, was from a group known as the Temple of the Jedi Order that sought nonprofit or charity status because, it claimed, Jediism was a religion.

The Charity Commission, however, disagreed saying it does not “promote moral or ethical improvement” and thus is not a religion.

That is not the end, however, of the Temple — as noted by a new The New York Times article yesterday as well.  Others, including, those in the United States, are still persisting.

Which led me to thinking — what would happen if an employee here in Connecticut asked for a religious accommodation on the basis of “Jediism”?

Lest you think I’m really stretching, no less than the President of the United States (Obama, that is) made remarks about this phenomenon when commending George Lucas on his Kennedy Center honors.  In that December 6, 2015 speech, he stated:  “He created a mythology so compelling that in a 2001 census, the fourth-largest religion in the United Kingdom was ‘Jedi.'”  

So, it’s out there.  But not in the courts yet. A quick search of court decisions has yet to find a case where Jediism is listed.  So, back to the question: what would the courts do if confronted about it?

Probably laugh.  After all, pledging allegiance to the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) was not enough to survive a motion to dismiss a religious discrimination claim.  The federal court that was confronted with the issue took swift note about the origins of the religion and ruled that it wasn’t enough to satisfy the legal requirements:

This is not a question of theology: it is a matter of basic reading comprehension. The FSM Gospel is plainly a work of satire, meant to entertain while making a pointed political statement. To read it as religious doctrine would be little different from grounding a “religious exercise” on any other work of fiction. A prisoner could just as easily read the works of Vonnegut or Heinlein and claim it as his holy book, and demand accommodation of Bokononism or the Church of All Worlds. 6 See, Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle (Dell Publishing 1988) (1963); Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land (Putnam Publ’g Grp. 1961). Of course, there are those who contend—and Cavanaugh is probably among them—that the Bible or the Koran are just as fictional as those books. It is not always an easy line to draw. But there must be a line beyond which a practice is not “religious” simply because a plaintiff labels it as such. The Court concludes that FSMism is on the far side of that line.

Case closed, right? Well, perhaps, but even the EEOC has recognized that legal protections aren’t just for well established religions like Christianity.  In one Q and A, it notes the broad language of Title VII:

For purposes of Title VII, religion includes not only traditional, organized religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but also religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or that seem illogical or unreasonable to others. An employee’s belief or practice can be “religious” under Title VII even if the employee is affiliated with a religious group that does not espouse or recognize that individual’s belief or practice, or if few – or no – other people adhere to it. Title VII’s protections also extend to those who are discriminated against or need accommodation because they profess no religious beliefs.

So perhaps someday we’ll see this tried in courts. But for now, please don’t tell my kids its not real.  And someone save seats for me at The Last Jedi when it opens.