Back in January, 30-year-old Greg Piatek from Philadelphia claims a bar in New York City discriminated against him because he was wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat. Now, he's asserting that the MAGA hat is a symbol of his religious beliefs. According to the lawsuit, Piatek says he was "adhering to his closely held spiritual beliefs by adorning the hat in question," and that those spiritual beliefs "entirely transcend the political realm." But can "Make America Great Again" really be a religion?
In the United States, religion is not legally defined in the same way as it is in other parts of the world, according to Nina Shea, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom. "There are often rosters of approved religions and then there are suspect religions that are under watch and then there are religions that are banned," she tells Bustle. "We have complete religious freedom in that regard."
However, while religion is loosely defined from a legal standpoint, a MAGA hat by itself is not a religious symbol, Shea explains. "Now the question is, 'Is this a religious set of beliefs?' What is the system of beliefs behind [the hat] and does that make it religious?"
Piatek first sued the bar in March for "egregious, unlawful, and discriminatory conduct," according to Gothamist. He claims that during the course of his night at The Happiest Hour, he was called a "terrible person" by one bartender and received "a lengthy death stare" from another. Piatek asserts that he was supposedly ignored by employees and denied drinks, and was reportedly asked by one bartender if his hat was a "joke." He was supposedly then asked to leave the bar by the manager, according to the lawsuit, after which he called police, who told him the incident was not criminal in nature. As a result, Piatek says he now suffers from "anxiety and severe emotional distress" because of the incident.
The management at The Happiest Hour denies Piatek's story. "The plaintiff's vague and conclusory arguments are entirely fanciful," the bar's attorney, Preston Ricardo, told Gothamist. "They have no support in the law. And they continue to show that the action is nothing more than an ill-conceived publicity stunt guised as a lawsuit."
Before heading to the bar, Piatek said he and his friends visited the 9/11 Memorial Museum, where they ruminated over the "the memory of victims and fallen heroes of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks." In the lawsuit, he claims he was shocked by the incident at The Happiest Hour because of his "sincerely held set of beliefs in which he felt it was necessary to wear a particular hat in remembrance of the souls who lost their lives and as a symbol of freedom/free speech."
Piatek's lawsuit says he considers himself "a member of a protected class…[who] was discriminated against on account of his membership in that class." He and his attorney are essentially equating a MAGA hat with a yarmulke or hijab or any other religious clothing item. "A religious belief can appear to every other member of the human race preposterous," the suit says, "yet still be entitled to protection."
While not involved with the case, Shea thinks you could argue that a MAGA hat doesn't symbolize a set of religious beliefs. "These are a political set of beliefs," she says. "The court needs to draw that out and see what he means by a system of beliefs. From first glance, this is a political symbol rather than a religious symbol. I do think there's a distinction between a religious belief and a political belief in this case."
And while the First Amendment protects free speech and freedom of religion, it does not protect all beliefs. "There has to be some kind of distinction," Shea says. "We protect free speech, but we don't give the same constitutional rights to all deeply held beliefs as we do to religious beliefs." She says that in the case of Piatek and his hat, the court can "probe about whether there was a system of beliefs there at all and what that system of beliefs is."
Shea adds that because the incident with Piatek took place in a private establishment, "it's an expression issue." If he "were on state property, government property, it’d be a different issue," she says, "but since this is a private bar, they can set the rules of what speech is allowed."
It will be up to the judge hearing Piatek's case to decide whether or not his MAGA hat is a symbol for legitimate spiritual beliefs. "What are the tenets," Shea says. "If they're regarding health care or immigrants, that's clearly part of the Trump agenda, which that hat symbolizes. The court would be reasonable to say this is a political system and that’s not a religion."