In April, the state of Arkansas approved a bill allowing for the erection of a 10 Commandments monument on capitol grounds, hoping to replicate biblically-themed statues that already adorn public property in nearby Oklahoma and Texas. But while conservative Christians championed the bill at the time, its passage may force the state to okay the construction of other religious symbols in the same area — including a statue of Satan.
On Tuesday, the New-York-state based Satanic Temple announced it has applied to construct a statue in Arkansas of Baphomet, a goat-headed deity often used to represent Satan.
“In a letter sent via certified mail to Arkansas’ Capitol Arts and Grounds Commission, The Satanic Temple formally requested permission to place their controversial ‘Baphomet’ monument alongside a Ten Commandments monument at the Capitol in Little Rock,” the group said in a press release.
The Satanic Temple (TST) describes its followers as Satanists, but its professed “tenets” hedge closer to atheism or secular humanism, such as, “Beliefs should conform to our best scientific understanding of the world.” The group has attracted widespread attention not for its worship practices, but by using its distinction as an organized religion to test the limits of religious liberty in the United States. In addition to making a similar request for a Satanic statue near a 10 Commandments monument in Oklahoma, the Satanic Temple has also campaigned to exempt their followers from “informed consent” laws that discourage women from having abortions — all while citing legal precedents typically used by conservative Christians. In most cases, followers claim a religious identity while voicing contempt for intrusions of religion into the public sphere.
The group listed similar grievances on Tuesday, blasting the bill that allowed the erection of a statue commemorating the laws handed down to Moses in the biblical book of Exodus.
“The request comes in reply to the approval of Senate Bill 939 which has allowed for a privately donated 10 Commandments monument to be placed at the Capitol,” the group’s statement read. “The bill hopes to preemptively head-off an Establishment Clause dispute by asserting the secular nature of the 10 Commandments, stating that the monument represents ‘an important component of the moral foundation of the laws and legal system of the United States of America and the State of Arkansas.’”
TST’s application is geared toward exposing a weakness in the “The Ten Commandments Monument Display Act,” which they argue “[opens] the public grounds to private donations,” meaning the government “cannot engage in viewpoint discrimination and must reasonably allow for other donations of a similar nature.”
Others have similarly leapt to take advantage of Arkansas’ new openness to religious expression on public property. The Freedom From Religion Foundation also applied for a permanent display that includes the phrase “there are no gods,” PETA requested permission to construct a “prominent exhibition” to promote veganism, and Hindus have asked to install a statue of The Lord Hanuman, an ape-faced deity. The Hindu group’s application was initially denied because it was sent to the wrong office.
This chorus of requests highlights the complexity of negotiating the relationship between religious expression and political power in the United States, where the Constitution simultaneously guarantees freedom of religious expression and prohibits the federal government from “establishing” one national religion. Although such matters are often get worked out quietly at the local level, the tension between these two legal rights can sometimes force state and federal officials to decide between banning all faith expressions in publicly-owned spaces or be universally inclusive of any and all religious traditions — including, it seems, forms of Satanism.
Legal disputes over these issues have produced mixed results over the years, but at least some explicitly religious exhibitions have been deemed illegal when placed on government property. Although the U.S. Supreme Court declared Texas’ statue of the 10 Commandments permissible in 2005 because it was thought to be more “historical” than religious, the Oklahoma Supreme Court recently called for the removal of a similar statue in the Sooner State because it violated the state’s own constitution.
The TST warned it is willing to mount a similar legal challenge in Arkansas.
“TST is prepared to pursue legal options if their application is rejected or ignored,” their statement read. ‘The Arkansas legislature unwittingly opened the door for our monument to be erected at Little Rock, while they clearly believed they could preference the 10 Commandments.”