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Get me to the Church of Body Modification on time

Ariana Lacono, a teenager in North Carolina, can't wear her nose stud to school. Pesky dress code? Or a violation of her freedom of religion? Lacono says it's the latter, because she belongs to something called the Church of Body Modification.

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She's not making this up. The Church of Body Modification exists -- it has about 3,500 members nationwide, according to the Associated Press. It's a group of people who experience their spirituality through modifying their bodies -- piercings, tattoos, scarifications and beyond. Ariana says her piercing makes her feel whole. How can they not let her wear it at school when it's just a physical manifestation of her faith?

I totally get where she's coming from. Once I came down with stigmata and they wouldn't let me go to school, either! Our dress code didn't expressly forbid stigmata, but there was a definite stigma attached to them. "But my skirt falls below the knee," I told my dean. "And I made certain not to wear flip-flops, because I know today is chapel." He was sympathetic but unmoved. Fortunately, it cleared up pretty quickly, and I was able to go back, but for a while I was worried I'd have to pursue alternative schooling.

Still, since we had so much in common, I decided I'd try to get in touch with the Church of Body Modification. They have a Web site -- currently overburdened with visits, but I found the archived version -- a board of directors, and everything.

One of them, David Hahn, described his experience:

After I left college, I began "decorating my temple," as I put it. I threw myself into modifying my body through piercing and tattooing, not so slowly amassing nearly 20 tattoos (ranging from religious icons that called to me to pop culture symbols and characters that harkened back to my childhood) and more than a dozen piercings (nipples twice each, PA, labret, tongue, 1 1/4-inch lobes, rooks, tragi, etc.). I also branched out into other more "extreme" forms of modification, such as a 4 1/2-hour flesh removal on my right calf, numerous ritual cuttings and scarifications, countless flesh pulls and numerous suspensions. (I love "Superman" suspensions.) And, yes, there are many more to come...

That makes sense. The members of the COBM believe their bodies are their temples -- and what temple is complete without a labret piercing? Admittedly, I don't know what a labret is. My roommate said she'd done research on some labrets once and had gotten them addicted to cocaine, but it turned out that she was talking about something different. I did figure out what suspension meant. When you're suspended, someone sticks a hook through some healed piercings somewhere on your body and hangs you up in the air. It's supposed to be a spiritual experience, but so is sitting in a chair and repeating "Om" to yourself. I'd rather do that.

In fact, the more I learned about the Church of Body Modification, the more I realized that I didn't have what it took. I understand thinking that your body is a temple. My temple is fatter than it was last year, but that's because it likes to eat sandwiches made entirely of cake. Still, I doubt that I could make it into the CBOM even if I tried. It turns out there's an application process to become a member. There's even an online form. "Why do you want to be a member of the Church of Body Modification?" it asks. "Briefly describe how body modification has affected you spiritually." Those I could have answered. One time I went on a diet, which is my preferred form of body modification, and it was also spiritual, because after I missed lunch for a week I became convinced that I could understand the secret language of squirrels. But somehow I feel that this is not what they have in mind. "What ritual events have you participated in? What was your role?" the site asks. What? That's where I fall off the wagon. I like being Episcopalian, where the only ritual events they ask you to participate in are other people's children's baptisms, and your role is to stand at the back and look like you're paying attention.

My stance on body modification aside, this scenario raises interesting questions about practicing your religion at school. So far, this is the best case I've seen for testing the limits of freedom of religion. Bizarre as the CBOM might seem, they're serious about what they do. You can't wake up one morning and decide to be a member -- there's an application process! This isn't atheism, which you can join any time for no fee whatsoever without piercing anything at all or attending any ceremonies. Not only that, Ariana's mother, Nikki, is a member as well. This isn't a case of a girl rebelling against school and parental authority. In fact, this seems like the one family where rebelling would mean deciding not to get a tattoo. But the real question is this: Does freedom of religion cover absolutely any religious belief?

Faith has always been a private matter, and people approach the divine in different ways. Some people go to temples. Some go to mosques. Other people list Jedi Knight on their census forms. Two people standing next to each other in a cathedral pew may be having entirely separate experiences of the divine. So what defines a legitimate religious belief, the kind you can't be expected to toss aside simply to abide by a dress code? Is it membership numbers? Might Ariana get to wear her piercing to school simply because 3.500 people went through a somewhat legitimate online application process? That hardly seems like an appropriate litmus test for faith, especially at the rate the Episcopalian communion is schisming -- soon it'll just be me and that one other guy. But unless you just want to declare every kind of belief preemptively legitimate, there's got to be some sort of cutoff. Otherwise what's to stop my friend Alec from insisting he needs to carry a lightsaber around the workplace?

Our nation was founded on freedom of religion -- freedom to practice your beliefs as you saw fit, however kooky they might appear to the establishment. I think that exact phrase appears somewhere in the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritans, after all, were not known for how normal their religion seemed to outsiders. Neither were the Shakers. Or the Quakers. Or the Amish.

Still, whenever your religion imposes a dress code that conflicts with the dress code of your country -- look at the burqa concerns in France -- people start to worry. Do we insist everyone conform to secular rules? Or do we allow everyone to dress in accordance to the dictates of his particular sect? And what if the founding premise of your sect is an insistence that you wear yellow cross-garters to work every day? That's going to be a problem.

Hopefully, our judiciary will be able to weed out the legitimate beliefs -- "these stigmata were here when I arrived!" -- from the illegitimate -- "my creed explicitly objects to any kind of dress code." But in the mean time, I'd better go figure out what a labret is.

By Alexandra Petri  | September 16, 2010; 3:30 PM ET
Tags:  Petri  
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