A response to C. Bradley Thompson.
Reading, Writing, and Satan
The decay of the First Amendment is on display in Virginia.
On December 13, the school board of Chesapeake, Virginia postponed voting on whether to authorize the establishment of an “After School Satan Club” at a local elementary school. Parents describing themselves “at their wits’ end” over the idea protested the proposed vote. The proposal emanated from the Satanic Temple, a group of political activists who identify themselves as a religious sect and portray After School Satan Clubs as a counterpart to fundamentalist Christian Good News Clubs, which they maintain constitute an unconstitutional effort by the “Religious Right” to infiltrate public education and erode the separation of church and state. Lawyers representing the Satan Club said the school must provide space for the club because of its affiliation with religion, protected by the First Amendment.
According to June Everett, “campaign director” for the proposed club and an “ordained minister” in the Temple, the club, far from worshiping the devil and espousing evil, “is intended to foster creativity and promote empathy,” and attempts to establish a “constructive and positive alternative” to other religious after-school clubs. She reports having first been drawn to the Temple five years ago after her first-grade son was “traumatized” on the playground by classmates who taunted him for not attending the Good News Club, and warned that he would burn in hell if he didn’t accept Christ as his savior.
The Satanic Temple is headquartered, appropriately, in Salem, Massachusetts, scene of the infamous seventeenth century witch trials. A flyer on the Temple’s Facebook page describes it as “a non-theistic religion that views Satan as a literary figure who represents a metaphorical construct of rejecting tyranny and championing the human mind and spirit.” On its website, besides appealing for donations, the Temple announces the four juvenile winners of its 2021 “Devil’s Advocate” scholarships (each in the amount of $666), presented to students “who have extraordinarily shown how compulsory schooling has dampened their creativity and inhibited their potential.”
The website includes an interview with one of the winners, from Ollie, Texas, who was asked to explain what he “hate[s] most about school.” The young scholar’s complaints include having to get up in the morning, get dressed, and brush his teeth; being made to work at school, while having to sit next to “Edwin the bully,” and “having to write whatever the teacher wants to write”—in his case, being assigned to write about animals rather than ninjas. Other complaints of the prize-winning junior Satanist include the length of the school day, the brevity of recess, and the poor quality of school lunches.
Meanwhile, in a parallel development, the Satanic Temple of Illinois is reported to have set up a display in the Illinois capitol rotunda, alongside the annual Christmas and Chanukah displays. On December 6, “Minister Adam” of the Temple was joined by some 15 members to dedicate the display, which consists of a crocheted snake sitting on a book and a pile of apples crocheted by Temple members.
Though it sounds like a parody, the group is, apparently, serious. The Temple represents itself as a leader in the fight to restore abortion rights in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, explaining that it has an advantage over “other religious groups” that have filed lawsuits to protect such rights, in that “only TST has an Abortion Ritual and a bodily autonomy tenet explicitly incorporated within our religious practice”—thus authorizing its members, apparently, to continue practicing abortions without interference from any legislative authorities on the grounds of religious liberty.
How did we come to a pass in which an explicitly non-theistic, and obviously either fraudulent or just plain wacky group, could be thought to have a constitutional right to public school sponsorship, just to counterbalance the “indoctrination” offered by a Christian organization? Judicial interpretation of the First Amendment’s religion clauses has exhibited a long and tangled history, ever since the Supreme Court began to “incorporate” the Amendment’s prohibition on congressional acts serving to “establish” religion, or restricting the “free exercise” thereof, against the states (via the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause) in the 1947 Everson case (in which a 5-4 majority upheld the constitutionality of the provision of school bus service at taxpayer expense to religious as well as public schools). But one decisive step, I suggest, was taken in the little-remembered 1965 case of United States v. Seeger, in which the Court reinterpreted the Selective Service Act’s exemption from military service during the Vietnam War to members of pacifist religious sects that opposed all warfare on grounds of “religious training and belief,” with that phrase being defined in the 1948 revision to the Act as “an individual’s belief in a relation to a Supreme Being involving duties superior to those arising from any human relation,” as distinguished from “essentially political, sociological, or philosophical views or a merely personal moral code.”
In Seeger, the Court extended the legislatively created right of conscientious objection to a group of three young men, none of whom belonged to an organized religious group or claimed to believe in a Supreme Being. It authorized the extension by interpreting the phrase “Supreme Being” to refer not only to a deity in any customary sense, but to a “broader concept of a power or being, or a faith, ‘to which all else is subordinate or upon which all else is ultimately dependent.’” It gave no plausible ground for disregarding Congress’s express denial of a draft exemption to those whose opposition to the draft was based merely on a personal moral code.
In Seeger, the Court proclaimed the relativization of the meaning of religion, in a manner that cannot have been intended by the First Amendment’s authors (some of whom, indeed, favored prohibiting congressional religious establishments precisely to prevent Congress from interfering with state establishments). Although Seeger involved a matter of statutory rather than constitutional interpretation, in recent decades the courts have gone so far as to ban the display of the Ten Commandments in front of a courthouse on First Amendment grounds, lest the display offend the feelings of atheists or agnostics called upon to enter. While George Washington, in his Farewell Address, proclaimed the necessity of widespread religious belief as a support for civic morality—a principle echoed by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America—the very concept of religion has now been deprived of substantive meaning, in favor of deference to the sensitivities of individuals like the Chesapeake mother whose child’s feelings were hurt by his classmates’ taunts. The culmination of this trend at the highest level was the Supreme Court’s 5-4 1992 ruling in Lee v. Weisman that the practice of having members of the clergy (on a rotating basis among those representing the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faiths) read a nondenominational prayer at a public middle-school graduation violated the Establishment Clause, which it interpreted to prohibit government from advancing any religion, or religion as such. (The rabbi who had been chosen to offer the blessing in 1989, which led to a lawsuit by the parent of a graduating student, had been provided with a pamphlet emphasizing that his prayer should be written in an inclusive and “sensitive” manner. His blessing contained two references to “God” and one to “Lord.”) The parent who sued to have the blessing abolished was concerned that the feelings of unbelieving students might be hurt by having to endure it. Specifically, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the Court that public and peer “pressure” on attending students simply “to stand as a group or maintain respectful silence” during the rabbi’s benediction represented an unconstitutional “coercion” in favor of religion.
So the feelings of students who are injured by having to remain silent during nondenominational invocations of God’s blessing take priority over those who wish to receive them, while the sensitivities of Satanists or their parents may have to be accommodated by having schools balance the presence of any voluntary, after-school Christian programs (or programs relating to other religions) with the establishment of Satan Clubs. If the latter demand must be satisfied, perhaps the invocation with which the Court opens its sessions, “God save this honorable Court!,” will soon be followed by a prayer to the devil himself.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.