If you have a society that grants religious privilege and exemption and you’re willing to give privilege and exemption to certain groups, then it’s unacceptable to give that only to people who believe in the supernatural.” – Lucien Greaves, cofounder of The Satanic Temple
Do conservative politicians believe in freedom of religion as a unified principle, or do they merely believe in the freedom to practice their own religion in public places and on the public dime and impose their religious directives on others? The Satanic Temple, a non-supernatural spiritual communion, has set out to find out—by asking for the same religious privileges granted to more mainstream sects.
The Temple’s latest move is a lawsuit against the City of Scottsdale, which denied one member of the Temple the right to give an invocation before a city council meeting. Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield stated in official email that she did “NOT want the Satanists” to speak and that the mere idea that they should have such a right was an example of “taking equality too far.”
The Bible calls Satan “a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” But Christians girding their loins for spiritual warfare with demon-worshipers might find the Satanic Temple a bit of a let-down. The Temple’s mission, as stated on their website, is “to encourage benevolence and empathy among all people, reject tyrannical authority, advocate practical common sense and justice, and be directed by the human conscience to undertake noble pursuits guided by the individual will.” Temple member Lilith Starr says that for her “the figure of Satan is a powerful symbol of standing up to unjust authority for yourself and for those around you. To me, he is a figure of compassion. Fighting against the rage and jealousy of an unjust god or against an unjust government authority. He is fighting for the people. He represents liberation.”
The February 23 lawsuit filed against the City of Scottsdale alleges that member Michelle Shortt was denied a right given to member of Judeo-Christian religions and encoded in Council policy. The policy in question allows a representative of any religion to deliver the invocation that is traditional before City Council meetings, but after Shortt was accepted to give hers, the Council rescinded the offer and replaced her with the pastor of a local Baptist Church.
On his re-election campaign website, Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane listed the silencing of Shortt as an accomplishment, saying, “In Scottsdale we’ve decided to keep our traditional invocations and we’ve decided to send this Satanist sideshow elsewhere.” Lane clearly recognizes that Scottsdale citizens hold a wide variety of religious views, having claimed that City Council “invocations celebrate our diversity, as we have heard respectful and thoughtful messages from Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and countless other faiths.”
But according to public records obtained by lawyers for the Satanic Temple, every invocation in the last eight years has been offered by a Judeo-Christian practitioner. “At no time have members of the Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu faith given an invocation before the Scottsdale City Council,” states paperwork for the lawsuit.
Councilmember emails obtained through public records filing reveal uncamouflaged bias against the Temple, with Littlefield’s statement as a clear example. Attorney Stu de Haan states, “By the City Council’s own statements, it’s clear that their refusal to allow The Satanic Temple to speak was motivated by their intent to discriminate against a minority religion.”
Temple co-founder Lucien Grieves calls the discrimination discouraging and costly. “It’s disheartening when public officials can display such a flagrant disregard for the most foundational bedrock principles of Constitutional Law while acting upon their personal biases at the expense of their taxpayer base, who are ultimately left to pay the legal costs for the ignorance of their Mayor and City Council.”
This is not the first time that the Satanic Temple has filed a religious freedom claim.
In Orange County, Florida, the Satanic Temple applied to distribute Satanic coloring books with pro-social messages alongside Christian materials being given out in public schools by the missionary group World Changers. Faced with their request, the school board closed the forum altogether, allowing neither group to evangelize in local schools.
In another case, Temple members funded a statue of Baphomet, a goat-man figure linked historically with the Knights Templar and whose name means absorption of knowledge. They sought to have the statue placed alongside the Ten Commandments outside the Oklahoma State Capitol, but the Supreme Court decided to instead remove the Ten Commandments Monument.
More recently the group won a partial victory in the Missouri Supreme Court on behalf of a member who said that her sincerely held religious beliefs were violated by state abortion restrictions.
What is the Temple after?
Greaves had this to say about the Baphomet case:
We’re not trying to destroy religious privilege and exemption; we are coming at it in a way that we can find a legitimate plateau on which religious privilege can work in a pluralistic society. During our Oklahoma campaign to place our statue of Baphomet alongside the Ten Commandments, people kept asking what were we looking for? What was our preferred outcome? For the Ten Commandments to come down or ours to go up? But either one of those outcomes was OK with us. What we were fighting against was that one perspective enjoyed the power of state government. We were just fighting against the worst-case scenario—that the Christian point of view had a preferred place in a government institution.
Win or lose, the Scottsdale City Council and mayor will have a hard time pretending henceforth that their invocations have in any meaningful way represented the diversity of their constituents.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.