Officer’s Sun-Worshiping Atheism Not A Religion

Marshel Copple was hired by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation as a correctional officer in 2009. As his probationary period was about to end, Copple posted the tenets of “Sun Worshipping Atheism” on the Web and on Facebook. Copple created the religion in 2008, though it then had a different name, the Unfired Religion.

As set forth in Copple’s postings, a Sun-Worshipping Atheist “does not believe in God, but believes that the demands of nature are like a higher power that must be answered to avoid disease and unhappiness and to be morally responsible. The main point of Sun-Worshipping Atheism is rational worship of the sun. As beings that evolved in the sunlight there are many benefits to our health and well-being that come from sunlight and so we honor it. Sun-Worshipping Atheism derives from ‘ordered chaos’ and ‘the sun.’”

Sun Worshipping Atheism’s “structure is very loose and grass roots,” without any hierarchy. It has no church, temple, synagogue, or any other physical structure for practice of its beliefs. There are no rituals for birth, death or marriage, nor are there holidays, religious days, or days of rest. Sun-Worshipping Atheism has no required ceremonies or services, although meditating in the sun may be “helpful.” To Copple’s knowledge, he is the only Sun-Worshipping Atheist.

In January 2010, Copple made a verbal and then a written request that he not be required to work more than 12-hour shifts in accordance with his Sun-Worshipping Atheism beliefs. The Department then presented a memo to Copple pointing out he had refused to work overtime shifts on three separate dates. It contained a “direct order” that Copple accept any overtime assignments and a warning that failure to do so could result in an adverse action or a failure of probation or both. Copple explained that at the time he was given the memo he was told that one more refusal to work overtime would result in his termination.

In May, Copple resigned from his position because he was required to work overtime shifts, which he claimed conflicted with his religious beliefs. Copple filed a religious discrimination claim against the State, alleging a failure to accommodate his religious beliefs.

The problem with Copple’s claim, the California Court of Appeals found, was that Sun-Worshiping Atheism was not a religion under state law. The Court used a three-part test to define a religion: “First, a religion addresses fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters. Second, a religion is comprehensive in nature; it consists of a belief-system as opposed to an isolated teaching. Third, a religion can often be recognized by the presence of certain formal and external signs.

”Using these factors, we determine Copple’s belief system is not a religion for state law purposes. First, Sun-Worshipping Atheism does not address fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters. Rather, it deals with Copple living a healthy lifestyle.

“Looking at the second factor, Sun-Worshipping Atheism is not comprehensive and does not express a full set of beliefs. Its list of practices reveal that it deals with living a healthy lifestyle, mind-body wellbeing, based on scientific facts synthesized by Copple. These include eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep.

“Finally, Sun-Worshipping Atheism lacks any outward signs. Although not conclusive, this is a strong indication the belief system is not a religious creed. There are no rituals, services, or religious holy days, nor is there any structure where its beliefs are observed. Moreover, there is no hierarchy or organization, not even an informal one. In fact, Copple is the only member.

“In conclusion, Sun-Worshipping Atheism is a personal philosophy and a way of life, and not a religion under state law.”

Copple v. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 2015 WL 1383578 (Cal. App. 2015).