Is Satanism a religion?

For most people, “Satan” is “the Devil,” and synonymous with evil, so the mere word provokes visceral reactions.

That being so, what reaction do you suppose a group calling themselves “Satanists” elicited from Florida’s governor when they proposed sending Satanist chaplains into public schools? NO FREAKIN’ WAY, to be sure, but not exactly the way you think.

Gov. DeSantis is a Harvard-educated lawyer, and no fool in legal matters, especially when he’s being set up. Favoring the Christian religion, or disfavoring another religion, could get his cherished public school chaplain law struck down.

With this Supreme Court, you can’t be sure, but there’s at least a chance even this crop of justices might conclude a state can’t do that.

So he said Satanism is not a religion. He said it the minute he signed the bill, and added “its members would not be allowed to participate in the program” (see story here). That’s heading ’em off at the pass!

Of course, he knows they’re gonna sue. To be sure, it’s a setup; their real aim is to go after the law, not counsel high schoolers on devil worship. So his idea is to push them completely outside the First Amendment’s establishment clause so they can’t lay claim to its protections.

That is, if they’re not a religion, then Florida isn’t disfavoring a religion by excluding them from the chaplain program. What’s more, if it’s not a religion, it doesn’t have chaplains, because “religion” and “chaplain” are inseparable.

It’s a clever argument, but will it fly in court? It could in a couple of ways. A rogue Supreme Court, and we have one, that bends the Establishment Clause beyond all earthly recognition is one way. This can’t be ruled out. But there’s a less torturous path the argument could follow.

Wikipedia says (here), “Satanism refers to a group of religious, ideological, and/or philosophical beliefs based on Satan.” So there are religious and non-religious kinds of Satanism. The problem, though, is trying to stick an “ideological” or “philosophical” label on a group that calls itself “religious.” That’s a sticky wicket.

So let’s pivot to the question of whether a public school can discriminate against a Satanist group that claims religious standing. Last year in Pennsylvania, the ACLU sued a school district (see press release here) that allowed an after-school Christian student club to use its facilities, but denied similar accommodation to an after-school Satan club, and got a temporary restraining order against the school district (see court order here). This case isn’t over, but the Satan club has won Round 1.

A 2020 Arizona lawsuit is even more directly in point. There a group called Satanic Temple sued Scottsdale for religious discrimination. They wanted to participate in the city council’s practice of opening its meetings with a prayer, which Christian pastors were being invited to do. It was, of course, a setup to lure the city into a lawsuit whose real aim was to end the prayer practice.

At first the council, apparently realizing this, agreed to the Satanists’ demand. But then public blowback hit them like a truckload of bricks, so they rescinded the invitation, and sure enough, the Satanists sued. The city argued in court the Satanists weren’t a real religion, and were only seeking to mock religion.

A problem, as that case illustrates, is that defining “religion” is a slippery business (you can wade further into the weeds here). There, even though Satanic Temple members profess not to “believe in God or the devil,” the judge rejected the city’s argument, but decided in the city’s favor by ruling there was insufficient evidence its officials were motivated by religious prejudice. That seems a bit slippery.

There have been other cases where religionists trying to promote Christianity on public property have been met with Satanists invoking the right to put up a Satan statue next to their Ten Commandments monument. It’s tempting to brand them as troublemakers, which of course they are, and is their intention.

But ask yourself this: Who started the trouble? People trying to inject their religion into government in defiance of the Establishment Clause, or people trying to defend the separation of church and state by siccing the angry dog of Satanism on them? And does it matter what they call themselves, or should we think past gut reactions and focus on the principle and freedom at stake, when politicians cross a line of constitutional permissibility?

Whatever happens, this should be a bedrock principle: No one should be allowed to use the public schools to impose their religious beliefs on other people’s children.

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