It’s that magical time of year again, when children make lists of gifts they want from Santa Claus, families gather around Christmas trees, and the Satanic Temple reminds state governments of a little thing called the First Amendment.
This year, the Illinois state capitol rotunda will feature a diversity of religious displays, including a Nativity scene, a menorah, and a statute depicting the hand of Eve offering the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The last display is sponsored by the Satanic Temple, and it features the message “KNOWLEDGE IS THE GREATEST GIFT.”
The Satanic tribute to the fall of man is part of a campaign by the Satanic Temple that reminds local governments of their obligation not to favor any particular religious view. The Temple, it should be noted, is not a Devil worshiping cult. They are more like a band of secular pranksters that troll government institutions which might otherwise give preferential treatment to Christians.
When Orange County, Florida permitted a Christian group to pass out Bibles to public school students, for example, the Satanic Temple announced that it would also distribute a book entitled The Satanic Children’s BIG BOOK of Activities.
In 2015, when Arkansas pushed a bill calling for a Ten Commandments monument to be erected on capitol grounds, the Satanic Temple sought to build a statue alongside it of the goat-headed deity Baphomet.
Phoenix, Arizona abandoned its practice of opening city council meetings with a prayer in order to prevent a member of the Satanic Temple from being able to deliver an opening invocation.
The last of these moves exploited a 2014 Supreme Court decision that initially appeared to be a terrible blow to the separation of church and state, but which has since allowed groups like the Satanic Temple to check Christian nationalism run amok.
Town of Greece v. Galloway concerned a town in upstate New York that invited local clergy — almost all of them Christians — to open its board meetings with an invocation. Though the Court permitted these opening prayers, its opinion also contained an important caveat.
“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 ten words “so long as the town maintains a policy of nondiscrimination” fuel the Satantic Temple’s efforts. Existing First Amendment doctrine permits some displays of religious monuments on government property. And it generally allows legislative bodies to open their sessions with prayers. But it does not permit the government to discriminate among faiths. If Christian clergy may sign up to deliver prayers, then so too may Satanists.
It remains to be seen, however, whether this rule against discrimination will survive, now that Kennedy’s been replaced by the much more conservative Brett Kavanaugh. Just last term, while Kennedy was still on the bench, the Court backed a Christian baker who wanted to ignore an anti-discrimination law. It then upheld the latest version of Trump’s Muslim ban.
In this Supreme Court, “religious liberty” is largely a code word for Christian supremacy.
We many not have to wait long to learn whether the rule against discrimination among faiths is likely to survive Brett Kavanaugh.
This term, the Court will decide whether a county government in Maryland is allowed to display a 40-foot tall Christian cross. There are almost certainly five votes on this Supreme Court to hold that the state may do so, but it is unclear whether they will undercut the rule against discrimination in the process.