Advocates challenging Missouri’s abortion law have an unexpected new ally: The Satanic Temple

The organization says the restrictions violate the First Amendment.

The Satanic Temple of Detroit performs Satanic ritual at Michigan State Capitol. CREDIT: Matt Anderson
The Satanic Temple of Detroit performs Satanic ritual at Michigan State Capitol. CREDIT: Matt Anderson

On Monday, the Missouri State Court Western Appellate District will hear oral arguments from a religious organization challenging an abortion law — but not from the type of group you might expect.

The Satanic Temple is arguing that Missouri’s abortion restrictions — specifically, its informed consent law and mandatory 72-hour waiting period for abortions — violates the religious freedom of one of its members who believes in reproductive autonomy and scientific fact. The United State Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit will hear arguments in the case later this month.

The organization, which sees Satan as a symbol and “embraces rational inquiry removed from supernaturalism,” filed state and federal lawsuits in the spring of 2015 on behalf of a pregnant woman seeking an abortion in the state, identified only as Mary Joe.

In 2014, the organization announced an initiative that would allow members of the Satanic Temple to use waivers to exempt themselves from Missouri’s provisions based on their religious beliefs. Mary Joe attempted to use this waiver to circumvent Missouri’s restrictions, but it was rejected, prompting this lawsuit.

Informed consent laws require patients seeking abortions to read pamphlets designed to dissuade them from choosing the procedure. Often, the pregnant person must also receive an ultrasound. Six states require that patients are told that personhood begins at conception and 13 states require that patients are told about the fetus’ ability to feel pain, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Twenty-seven states have mandatory waiting periods and just four states have 72-hour waiting periods, the longest in the country.

According to the The Satanic Temple, requiring members to look at non-scientific information in order to access an abortion is a violation of its beliefs. The group also argues that the 72-hour waiting period in Missouri violates the Free Exercise Clause because it asks members of The Satanic Temple to “consider a religious proposition with which they do not agree.”

The state filed a motion to dismiss last September, arguing that these restrictions do not promote the state’s religious beliefs and simply happen to “coincide or harmonize with the tenets of some or all religions.”

The Satanic Temple has turned its attention to abortion restrictions in recent years, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Hobby Lobby found that closely held businesses that have religious objections to contraceptives should not be required to cover them on their employees’ insurance — effectively broadening religious liberty claims.

Since then, the Satanic Temple has been using religious liberty grounds to argue in favor of better access to reproductive care. In addition to going after informed consent laws and waiting periods in Missouri, the organization also issued a statement last year saying it would sue Texas for its new rules requiring aborted fetal tissue to be buried or cremated. It stated that its members were not required to comply with the law since burial rites were part of a religious practice and requiring a specific method goes against its religious freedom rights.

For years, the Satantic Temple has also shaken up city council meeting prayers and efforts to distribute Bibles to children at school. Legislatures have to maintain a policy of nondiscrimination when inviting speakers to deliver opening prayers, which gave the Satanic Temple an opening to sign up for a Satanic invocation  at a Phoenix city council meeting last year. To avoid this fate, the city council voted to get rid of the practice of opening sessions with prayers. The Florida Capitol also agreed to put up a holiday display from the Satanic Temple that said, “Happy holidays from the Satanic Temple” and showed a diorama of the angel Lucifer falling into the fires of hell after the group threatened to sue when their display was rejected a year earlier.

The Satanic Temple has used social media, its eye-catching name, and images such as Baphomet, the “sabbatic goat,” to attract considerable media attention to its lawsuits. According to a 2015 New York Times profile of the organization, which was reportedly created by two people who had a “shared distaste for organized religion,” the Satanic Temple “has in three years achieved the kind of social media exposure usually reserved for pets in distress.”