A legal dispute of biblical proportions flared up in Oklahoma this week, pitting Catholics against Satanists in a case that raises questions about when — or if — the government can uphold the religious claims of one faith group over another.
Earlier this month, a Satanic group in Oklahoma City known as the Dakhma of Angra Mainyu requested the use of the local Civic Center Music Hall on September 21 for the performance of a Satanic ritual known as the “Black Mass.” The announcement incensed local Catholics, primarily because the ritual, which has existed in various forms for several centuries, openly mocks the Roman Catholic Church and includes the intentional desecration of a “host,” or a wafer of bread used during the Catholic ritual of the eucharist. The city manager defended the decision to hold the event by citing the First Amendment, but the Archdiocese of the Oklahoma filed suit against the Satanists on Wednesday, arguing that the group intended to use stolen property during the event.
“If an authorized individual has possession of a consecrated host, it must have been procured, either by that person or by another, by illicit means: by theft, fraud, wrongful taking, or other for of misappropriation,” the lawsuit, obtained by ThinkProgress, claimed. “The Church maintains ownership of all consecrated hosts throughout the world.”
The Archdiocese’s legal argument against the Satanists revolved around a long-established Catholic belief regarding the ritual of communion. According to Catholic theology, a host undergoes a process called transubstantiation after it is consecrated by a priest, or when the bread is said to become the physical body of Jesus Christ. Only authorized individuals are allowed to handle the elements until they are distributed to congregants during communion, at which point, according to the suit, “…a person who throws away a consecrated host or who takes it or retains it for a sacrilegious purpose is automatically excommunicated from the Catholic Church.” Thus, the diocese posited that since the host cannot be removed from a church without the consent of a priest, the bread that the Satanists planned to use in their service must have been stolen, and should be returned to a Catholic church.
“Using a consecrated Host obtained illicitly from a Catholic church and desecrating it in the vilest ways imaginable, the practitioners offer it in sacrifice to Satan,” Reverend Paul S. Coakley, Archbishop of Oklahoma City, said in a statement. “This terrible sacrilege … mocks Our Lord Jesus Christ, whom we Catholics believe is truly present under the form of bread and wine in the Holy Eucharist when it has been consecrated by a validly ordained priest.”
But Adam Daniels, the leader of the Dakhma of Angra Mainyu, told reporters that he didn’t steal the host — it was given to him by the priest.
“One of my priests in a foreign country is also a Catholic priest and he is the one who consecrated it himself and mailed it to me, and I’m not going to reveal his name and I’m not going to reveal what country he’s from,” Daniels told aleteia.org. Daniels later informed VICE News that the priest was from Turkey.
The lawsuit was ultimately resolved this week without having to go to court, as Daniels agreed on Thursday to return the wafers in exchange for the lawsuit being dropped. But the incident is still noteworthy, as it is but the latest in a growing number of “tests” to America’s understanding of religious liberty, and questions linger about what action, if any, police would have taken had the suit been put before a judge.
There are numerous examples throughout American history of legal courts weighing in on disagreements over religious law. In recent years, for example, various state courts have had to settle land disputes between churches attempting to break from their parent faith group and the denominations which, according to church law, technically own their property. States such as Texas have attempted to settle these suits by instituting “neutral” principles that strive to avoid bias towards one religious group. Thus, ideally, judges defer to the “established” beliefs of both faith traditions in a legal fight, respecting both parties unless the actions of one directly challenge the constitutional rights of another. (The U.S. Supreme Court, for its part, has generally refused to hear such cases, deferring to the decisions of the lower courts)
Similarly, the core concern in the Oklahoma case should be whether or not theft occurred, meaning the case came down to — with respect to Catholic beliefs — how the Satanists acquired the host in the first place. Writing for the Washington Post, UCLA School of Law professor Eugene Volokh argues that the case only had two possible legal outcomes:
1. If the Satanists actually got a host — a piece of bread — that was owned by the Catholic Church, and was passed along by a church employee in violation of the terms on which he received the host, then they would have to give it back. The analogy would be if the San Diego Padres gave their players jerseys but only for purposes of playing in them, and one of the players sold his jersey to a fan; the jersey would still belong to the Padres, and the fan would have to give it back. The Satanists could then still conduct whatever rituals they wanted with their own property, but they’d have to get their own damned host.
2. But if the Satanists got a renegade priest to say some words over a piece of bread that wasn’t owned by the Catholic Church, even if this action was specifically forbidden by the Church, then the bread wouldn’t be owned by the Church. The analogy would be if a Padres player wore his own shirt during practice and then sold it to a fan — something the Padres-player contract specifically forbade. The player would then be violating his contract, but the Padres wouldn’t get ownership rights to the shirt as a result of the breach of the contract (at least unless the contract was very specific on the player expressly transferring his property rights in all shirts he wears during practice; the Church’s petition doesn’t plead the analog of that, I think). Likewise, the Satanists would be able to lawfully acquire this host, which by hypothesis the Church never owned and never lent out on restricted terms.
But while these principles have been generally true for past cases, the ideal of a neutral legal approach to religious claims was recently called into question by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to grant the Christian craft store giant Hobby Lobby religious exemptions from the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act. Critics of the decision have raised concerns that Hobby Lobby was only given the exemption because of the prominent role Christianity plays in American society, with some wondering if the decision would have been different had the plaintiffs belonged to minority religious group such as Muslims — or, perhaps, Satanists.
Indeed, Satanists have repeatedly tested our nation’s dedication to sweeping religious freedom for all people of faith. In January, the New York-based Satanic Temple submitted an application to erect a seven-foot statue of Satan at Oklahoma’s state Capitol. The plans for the statue, which feature a goat-headed figure with horns and wings, were partially in response to the construction of a six-foot-tall granite memorial to the biblical Ten Commandments on the Capitol grounds in 2012. When asked about the possibility of the Satanist structure, Rep. Don Armes (R-Faxon) openly acknowledged the double-standard of the community, telling the Associate Press, “I think we need to be tolerant of people who think different than us, but this is Oklahoma, and that’s not going to fly here.”
Satanists are even directly challenging the limits of the recent Hobby Lobby decision. In July, the Satanic Temple unveiled a campaign for their members to be exempted from “informed consent” laws that attempt to discourage women from having abortions. Just as the evangelical Christians who own Hobby Lobby argued that certain forms of contraception violated their religious convictions, members of the Satanic Temple argued that, as Satanists, their deeply-held beliefs about “scientifically valid information” should also excuse them from informed consent laws.
To be sure, the actions of Satanists will likely offend believers and non-believers alike, and there a valid question about how to responsibly engage with a group whose rituals intentionally deride people of other faiths. Nevertheless, Satanism is a religious tradition that has existed in various forms for millennia, and it is worth paying attention to how their activism — and, when it comes to the Black Mass, their freedom to perform their own style of worship — will impact our nation’s evolving conception of religious freedom.