Marshel Copple is a “Sun Worshipping Atheist” – a religion he created and of which he is the sole member.  The core principles of Sun Worshipping Atheism, according to Mr. Copple, include:

  • praying in the sun;
  • taking natural fresh air daily;
  • sleeping eight hours or more;
  • eating and drinking when needed;
  • frequent exercise;
  • daily rest; and
  • engaging in frequent social activities.

Mr. Copple worked as a corrections officer with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. He sued the Department, alleging that it discriminated against him and refused to accommodate his religious beliefs, which resulted in his constructive discharge. Among the Department’s allegedly improper actions was requiring him to work overtime, which Mr. Copple claimed interfered with his sincerely-held belief that humans require eight hours of sleep each night.

After losing before the trial court on summary judgment, Mr. Copple, representing himself, appealed. However, he fared no better on appeal, with the court succinctly stating “[w]e hold Sun Worshipping Atheism is not a protected religion under [the California Fair Employment and Housing Act] and therefore none of the causes of action are viable.” Its conclusion was supported by its finding that Sun Worshipping Atheism does not “address fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters” but rather “deals with living a healthy lifestyle” and that it lacks “outward signs” of a bona fide religion, such as “rituals, a place of worship, hierarchy or holy days.” Instead, the court concluded that Sun Worshipping Atheism is Mr. Copple’s “personal philosophy” and his “way of life.” Thus, requiring Mr. Copple to work overtime, even though it interfered with his getting eight hours of sleep a night, could not be deemed religious discrimination.

All joking aside, it would be incorrect to read too much into the court’s decision here. It certainly does not mean that only traditional religions are protected under anti-discrimination laws. It does, however, make clear that simply believing strongly in something does not make it a religion. Religious creeds, according to the court, try to comprehensively answer questions of life, death, and human existence. Sun Worshipping Atheism, by contrast, appeared to the court to be a compilation of scientific suggestions for healthy living – and, of course, avoiding mandatory overtime.