When Ann Zhang was an undergraduate in China, she used to write an online column about the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the mystical being that devotees of Pastafarianism believe created the world.
Zhang studied astronomy and considers science her religion. She had a picture of the Flying Spaghetti Monster on her refrigerator.
So when she passed the written test to get her Georgia driver’s license, Zhang immediately went to IKEA in search of a colander — the Pastafarian’s religious headdress — to wear for her driver’s license photo.
“They had three styles of colanders at IKEA and I tried them on,” she said. “I figured this one fits me the best. This one, on me, looks better.”
Zhang, now a graphic design student at SCAD who lives in Midtown, took her picture with the colander on her head. She was issued a temporary driver’s license. And in doing so, she stepped into a contentious discussion about free speech and what constitutes a religion.
Late last year, after being photographed for his driver’s license while wearing a colander, Snellville resident Chris Avino received a letter from the state Department of Driver Services telling him he needed a new picture.
It’s OK for someone to wear a religious headdress in a driver’s license photo, the letter said, but the colander did not count.
“A colander is not a veil, scarf or headdress,” the letter said. “A colander is a kitchen utensil commonly used for ‘washing or draining food.’”
Susan Sports, a spokeswoman for the DDS, said she could not comment on Zhang’s photo specifically. She did say that the department had not canceled any additional licenses due to prohibited headgear, though they would continue to do so.
“Any customer photo taken with a colander as headgear is inappropriate, and the customer would hear from DDS directly,” Sports wrote. “We do continue to utilize processes to ensure that all customer photos meet the Department’s requirements. If photos are found that do not comply with our rules, the customer will be contacted by DDS directly.”
Zhang said she had not heard from the department about the photo.
Before she took it, though, she worried about whether she would be allowed to. So Zhang smiled, asked about the counter worker’s day and held up the colander, hoping to get permission to wear it on her head, she said.
She had the website for the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster loaded on her phone, she said, ready to show that it was a serious religion. But she never had to pull it up. The counter employee went to a manager who said it was OK, Zhang said.
“I tried so hard just to be nice to everybody. I was afraid they would deny me,” she said. “I was so happy after. I high-fived every officer in sight.”
If the DDS does try to make her take a new picture, Zhang said, she will argue to keep hers.
“That’s a really cute picture,” Zhang said of the colander photo. “In America, everything is possible. I won’t expect this in my home country. I won’t even try.”