Phoenix, Arizona will no longer begin its city council meetings with a prayer, a reform the council adopted in order to prevent a Satanic Temple member from offering such an opening invocation.
The move follows a 2014 Supreme Court decision that, ironically, was widely viewed as a huge blow to the separation of church and state when it was handed down. That impression, however, did not anticipate the Satanic Temple’s efforts to troll lawmakers who wish to begin their meetings with an endorsement of religion.
Town of Greece v. Galloway involved a town in upstate New York that invited local clergy to open its board meetings with an invocation. With a few exceptions, these prayers were delivered by Christian ministers, and many of them had overtly Christian themes. Nevertheless, a bare majority of the justices concluded that this arrangement 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,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the Court. “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.”
The requirement that legislatures maintain “a policy of nondiscrimination,” however, opened up a door to the Satanic Temple. If lawmakers cannot discriminate against non-Christian faiths when they invite speakers to deliver opening prayers, that means that they cannot discriminate against Satanists who wish to offer a Satanic invocation — which is exactly what Stu de Haan, a member of the Satanic Temple, signed up to do on February 17 in Phoenix.
Rather than permit de Haan to offer a Satanic prayer at an official government meeting, however, Phoenix’s city council voted 5–4 on Wednesday to abandon its practice of opening sessions with a prayer. Instead, sessions will now begin with a “moment of silence.”
(It’s worth noting that the Satanic Temple is not a Devil worshiping cult. Rather, the temple teaches principles such as “one should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason” and “beliefs should conform to our best scientific understanding of the world.” It sees Satan as a metaphor for rebellion.)
This is not the first victory the Satanic Temple has won by insisting that state and local governments honor the constitutional ban on religious discrimination. In 2014, Florida officials allowed the temple to put up a display celebrating the fall of the angel Lucifer as one of five displays honoring the December holiday season. The display, which proclaimed “Happy holidays from the Satanic Temple,” also included a Bible verse: “How you are fallen from heaven, o day star, son of dawn!”
The temple also fought to display a statute of children admiring the goat-headed deity Baphomet in Arkansas. It also effectively shut down an effort to distribute Bibles to Florida schoolchildren by insisting that the school district also allow the temple to distribute Satanic literature to the same children.
One question for the temple, however, is whether the justices will tolerate this tactic of policing the boundary between church and state if a state or locality targeted by the Satanic Temple decides to fight the tactic in court. The nondiscrimination rule described in Town of Greece may have given the temple something they can lean on, but a majority of the Supreme Court remains skeptical of church/state separation cases and may not take kindly to trolling.
Additionally, this tactic depends on the Satanic Temple and other groups bothered by government endorsements of religion contributing significant resources to fighting such endorsements. The temple, after all, can only build but so many statutes of Baphomet.