Satanic Temple lawyers try legal tactics from Christians

Across the country, the Satanic Temple, an IRS-recognized atheist church with some 300,000 devotees, is waging a legal battle it says is for religious liberty, using tactics that have proved effective for Christian groups.

The church, which preaches both empathy and the "freedom to offend," has filed at least seven lawsuits in as many states, challenging the limits on what qualifies as religious expression. It says it's looking for equal treatment in the public square. Its opponents say it's just mocking Christianity and calling it a high-minded struggle for justice.

Lucien Greaves, who co-founded the church in 2013, says he hopes the lawsuits will expand religious equality and free speech in a way that benefits all Americans, whether they approve of his faith or not.

"People get a laugh when they see us fighting to put a Satanic monument on the same grounds as the Ten Commandments, but whether we succeed or fail is not of minor importance," Greaves, 45, said in an interview. When Christians seek to put up monuments in public spaces, "that's not all they're asking for," he said. "That's just a first step."

The church's argument in Little Rock, where it intervened in a lawsuit by secularists seeking to remove the granite Commandments monument, is that it violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment by putting a government stamp of approval on one religion over others. Rather than have the Commandments taken down, though, the church wants to put up its angel-winged goat, Baphomet, to memorialize people killed in witch hunts.

Arkansas fought to keep the Satanic Temple out of the suit, calling it a "notoriously-transparent" front for "trolling." The state's filing even quoted the church's archrival, the Church of Satan, which has said the Satanic Temple's adherents lack genuine religious beliefs and give satanism "a bad name."

The Christian nonprofit group Alliance Defending Freedom, which is involved in the Belle Plaine, Minn., litigation over a Satanic monument, points to a September article in the Federalist by the Alliance's senior counsel, Jordan Lorence, in which he accuses the Satanic Temple of deploying "anti-religious confusion and misdirection" to advocate "anti-supernatural rationalism that exalts the self."

Yet what's good for the goose may be good for the goat.

"Courts have increasingly taken a very aggressive approach to accommodating religious practices, particularly of white conservative Christians, so these cases may test the judiciary's willingness to apply the same standards to a highly disfavored religious group," said Elizabeth Reiner Platt, director of the Law, Rights and Religion Project at Columbia Law School.

Greaves, a Detroit native now living in Salem, Mass., says it's simple -- and entirely American.

"You can't give preference to a specific religious viewpoint and also say we're a nation of religious liberty," he said. "Religious liberty was never meant to apply to one viewpoint."

The litigation has had mixed results. The U.S. Supreme Court in September declined to hear the church's appeal after its lawsuit challenging a Missouri abortion law was dismissed. The suit included a claim that the Satanic Temple's followers are exempt from certain abortion regulations as a group protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act -- a leaf from the religious right's book.

In Alaska, on the other hand, a state court judge in 2018 ruled in favor of a Satanic Temple follower who challenged the prayer policy for Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meetings. Borough officials changed the rules and allowed a Satanist prayer in 2019, leading to a walkout.

Greaves ascribes some of his legal setbacks to judges engaging in "mental gymnastics" to avoid addressing the strength of the group's religious liberty claims.

"They don't want to be caught in a situation where they are ruling in favor of the Satanic Temple and p*ing people off," he said.

Upcoming Events