Prisoners face many challenges during their incarceration, including barriers to litigation against prison officials to preserve their constitutional rights.  Those barriers are sometimes the result of the frivolous suits of others, as in the case of Stephen Cavanaugh, 23, serving a sentence of four to eight years at Nebraska State Penitentiary for attempted first-degree assault and weapons convictions.

The Suit: Religious Rights in Prison

In Cavanaugh’s federal civil rights lawsuit against Nebraska State Penitentiary prison officials and the Department of Corrections, he claims that he is a “Pastafarian,” who is being discriminated against and not allowed to practice his faith which centers around the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and includes practices such as wearing a colander on one’s head.

The History: The Flying Spaghetti Monster

In 2005, an Oregon man brought this so-called religion into prominence, and more than 10 million people “have been touched by His Noodly Appendage.”  The Nebraska prison system currently recognizes 20 different religions.  This same Oregon man protested the Kansas Board of Education’s decision to allow intelligent design to be taught in public schools.  He demanded equal time for his faith: Flying Spaghetti Monsterism.

Recently, an Oklahoma woman was allowed to wear a colander on her head in her driver’s license picture, claiming it was her religious headwear.

Cavanaugh’s Dreams: $5 Million Cash

For Cavanaugh’s alleged discrimination, he is seeking $5 million in damages for pain and suffering.  He said he is forced to choose between angering his god by not being able to preach and demonstrate his faith, and angering his god by doing so in a disrespectful manner.  He claims “this has caused [me] no end of stress and spiritual pain.”

Frivolous Lawsuits Can Only Harm Prison Litigants

Frivolous lawsuits such as these are the flotsam of the justice system and are the reason for the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) and other obstructionist legislation, enacted by lawmakers who seize on such instances of silliness to prevent other prisoners from protesting their conditions of confinement in the courts when it is necessary to do so.  They deter the courts from assisting prisoners with legitimate claims.  There are only three strikes for a prisoner to file a frivolous suit; this should be Cavanaugh’s only one.  Suits like this one cause only disdain for prisoners by the courts and the public alike

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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