He’d placed an upside-down spaghetti colander atop his head.
Fletcher tapped the microphone, took his seat and told the gathered lawmakers exactly who he was: “I’m Barrett Fletcher. I’m the founding pastor of the First Lower Peninsula Congregation of Pastafarians."
A member of the audience giggled. A man turned his back in protest. A woman behind Fletcher, keeping a determinedly straight face, raised and sipped her drink.
“I am called to invoke the power of the true inebriated creator of the universe, drunken tolerator of all the lesser and more recent gods,” Fletcher said, peering down at his typed-out prayer. “May the Great Flying Spaghetti Monster rouse himself from his stupor and let his noodly appendages ground each assembly member in their seats.”
His speech would go viral over the next 48 hours, spurring headlines around the world and thousands of likes, shares and joke-filled comments on social media. Fletcher, his friends and congregants — members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which worships a spaghetti-and-meatball god — reveled in the spotlight, amused at the attention suddenly bestowed on Homer, the tightknit Alaskan town of about 5,000 where the meeting took place.
But they knew more serious issues were at play: controversial questions over the proper separation of church and state in America that date to the country’s founding and crop up regularly in court.
“I was there to defend the First Amendment,” Fletcher told The Washington Post. “I’m very offended by having God associated with my local politics.”
“There is no need to invoke the almighty before a meeting of the borough assembly,” said Ken Landfield, another local. “So this is Barrett’s answer, and I fully support it.”
Fletcher’s delivery of the Pastafarian invocation Tuesday marked the culmination of a years-long legal battle over the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly’s habit of holding religious invocations before its meetings. The fight started in 2016 when the borough assembly approved a policy mandating that anyone who delivered religious invocations before its meetings must belong to an established organization that met regularly in the region. In practice, the governing body leaned on the new rule to prevent a Jewish woman and an atheist from delivering invocations, according to the Associated Press.
Those denials prompted allegations of religious discrimination and, eventually, a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska — litigation that wrapped up last October when the Alaska Superior Court ruled the policy illegal under the state constitution’s establishment clause. Like the federal version, Alaska’s establishment clause prohibits government from establishing an official religion and from preferring one religion over another.
In his final decision, Judge Andrew Peterson wrote that the invocation rule “stemmed from intolerance” given it was crafted to “exclude minority faiths or beliefs.”
Borough assembly members did not respond to requests for comment or were unable to comment Thursday — except for Dale Bagley, who emailed a brief summary of the controversy. “We lost a lawsuit and basically the Kenai Peninsula Borough has to allow anyone that wants to give an invocation to give it," Bagley wrote.
He added of Fletcher: “We didn’t invite him.”
Zeba Huq, a lecturer at Stanford Law School, said the Alaska case is broadly representative of a debate over religion’s role in government that often roils U.S. courts and society. The country remains spread across a spectrum of legal views, she said: On one end, some attorneys point to the establishment clause to assert church and state must remain completely separate. Others take the opposite view, arguing anything short of “an official state religion” is permissible, she said.
In the middle are those who say it’s okay to mix religion with government — as long as all religions are treated equally. That’s about the angle the Alaska Superior Court appears to have taken, Huq said.
“These are hard issues,” Huq said. “There’s no consensus; that’s why these cases come to court and why religious liberty is such a contested issue in this country.”
Fletcher, though, is clear what he wants: total separation of church and state. That creed is partly what drew him to Pastafarianism, he said.
Oregon resident Bobby Henderson created the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster in 2005 as a tongue-in-cheek religion partly meant to mock organized belief, particularly Christianity — spurred by the Kansas State Board of Education’s decision to allow the teaching of intelligent design in schools. In the years since, hundreds of thousands of people around the world have signed up, according to Mike Arthur, an indie filmmaker who is producing a documentary about Pastafarians.
Joining the faith is easy: People become Pastafarian by saying so, Arthur said. One can also purchase a roughly $25 certificate online to become a “ministeroni." Religious requirements are nonexistent — though some Pastafarians do meet up regularly to drink and eat pasta at “services," according to Arthur — and faith-based attire includes the infamous pasta strainer as a form of headgear.
Pastafarians have different interpretations, but for some the colander symbolizes a desire to “separate the important stuff, the pasta, from the non-important stuff, the water” — in cooking and in life, Arthur said.
“Yes, it’s funny and it’s satire, but it’s deeper than that: What Pastafarians want is equality, and they want empathy,” Arthur said. “They’re not against religion — they’re against nonsense done in the name of religion, or religion mixing with science or government.”
In that sense, Fletcher’s speech Tuesday is a perfect manifestation of the Pastafarian ethos, Arthur said.
Fletcher, who’s been interested in Pastafarianism since 2005, said he became a “ministeroni” and founded his congregation about three years ago specifically to oppose the borough assembly’s invocation policy. After advertising his church on social media and through word of mouth, Fletcher attracted a devoted congregation of about 30, he said.
His ultimate goal was always to deliver an invocation before the borough assembly. On Tuesday, he used the long-sought opportunity to make his disdain clear.
“We’re gathered here to do the business of our Kenai Peninsula Borough, to make the rules of behavior and property, levy taxes and determine how to disburse them wisely," he said. “A few of the assembly members seem to feel that they can’t do this work without being overseen by a higher authority.”
Fletcher concluded with a resounding “Ramen" — and, at the meeting’s close, went to a dinner party at a friend’s house.
He removed the colander before the meal.
This story has been corrected to say that the Alaska Superior Court had ruled that the borough’s policy was unconstitutional.