When the Supreme Court handed down its decision last week in Town of Greece v. Galloway, upholding a local legislature’s practice of opening its sessions with mostly Christian prayers, the conservative legal group that litigated the case claimed that the decision was an “ANSWERED PRAYER” in a banner at the top of their website. They may regret that claim, however, after the full consequences of the decision become clear. The decision offers a road map for Satanists, Pastafarians and other uncommon faiths to demand that they be given an opportunity to open lawmaking sessions with a prayer to their particular deity.
Although most of the prayers that opened the town of Greece, NY’s legislative sessions were Christian, Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Court held that these prayers did not violate the Constitution. “That nearly all of the congregations in town turned out to be Christian does not reflect an aversion or bias on the part of town leaders against minority faiths,” Kennedy explained. “So long as the town maintains a policy of nondiscrimination, the Constitution does not require it to search beyond its borders for non-Christian prayer givers in an effort to achieve religious balancing.” So lawmakers do not need to seek out diversity when they wish to begin their legislative sessions with a prayer, but they cannot exclude believers from lesser-known sects either.
Shortly after the Town of Greece decision was handed down, a Florida man named Chaz Stevens saw an opportunity to exploit this anti-discrimination rule. A self-described Satanist, Stevens wrote the city of Deerfield Beach requesting the opportunity to open a city council meeting in prayer. He also offered an example of what his prayer might say — “O mighty Lord Satan, / teach us to become strong and wise! / Teach us to vanquish the enemies / of our freedom and well-being!”
In fairness, it is unclear that Stevens himself has a legal right to read a Satanist prayer before the city council. Though it is remains to be seen how the justices will apply the anti-discrimination rule laid out in Town of Greece in future cases, courts in other contexts have held that a plaintiff may only made a religious liberty claim when their claim is based on a “sincerely held” religious belief. If the courts import that rule into the legislative prayer context, Stevens is probably out of luck, since he admits that his attempt to read a Satanic prayer is “a comic gag, a satirical gag, an extreme gag that draws attention at the greying of the separation of church and state.”
Nevertheless, while Stevens may not sincerely hold Satanist beliefs, a member of the Church of Satan who does hold such beliefs should be able to take advantage of the anti-discrimination rule announced in Town of Greece — assuming, of course, that the Supreme Court does not move the goal posts and exclude Satanists from the rule against discrimination once the full consequences of their recent decision become clear.