Earlier today, the Hays USD 489 Board of Education in Kansas voted to repeal a ban on “Satanism” from its elementary and middle school dress code. It’s the right move, though it comes weeks after a Satanist mother made the request and the ban appeared to be on the way out, and days after the board decided to keep the ban in place anyway.
The whiplash is getting to me.
Perhaps the threat of legal action finally got to them.
In case you need a refresher, the dress code in question had an explicit ban on clothes that have references to “Satanism” alongside bans on sex, profanity, drugs, and gang affiliation.
If “Satanism” was intended to be a reference to evil, that’s just not true. That’s more like a relic of the “Satanic Panic” of decades past. If we’ve learned anything about people who call themselves Satanic these days, they’re arguably far more moral than most religious organizations. (Followers of The Satanic Temple, to name one group, abide by the group’s Seven Fundamental Tenets, including “One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason.”)
Last month, parent Mary Turner attended a school board meeting to express that very point. Turner has three kids in the district and said her kids shouldn’t be punished for wearing clothing that promotes their beliefs. After all, it’s no different from Christians who wear religious apparel.
“I raise my children according to the seven [tenets] of satanism, and while children of other faiths can wear clothing that declares their family’s religion,” she said, “my family’s faith is specifically called out and banned in the school handbook dress code.
“Your own non-discrimination policies state that you do not discriminate against students based on religion. Your own mission says every student in every classroom every day,” Turner said.
The Satanic Temple has been a federally recognized church for many years, Turner said.
“Banning Satanic students from wearing clothing that declares their faith while allowing students of all other faiths to wear similar clothing is an act of discrimination,” she said.
“I am here to ask that the school board remove satanism from their dress code policy and they no longer blacklist my family’s faith and the faith of other families here in Hays as distracting, unsafe or offensive,” Turner said.
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The board seemed receptive to those ideas. One board member even noted how the district claimed to value diversity and inclusion, even though their dress code singled out one religion in particular. Another board member suggested changing the dress code so it simply banned “disruptive” clothing rather than listing out specific examples. (That would’ve been fine!) But no decision was made during the meeting. The board members asked the administration to suggest a change, which they would vote on at an upcoming retreat before the start of the new school year.
But last week, when it finally came time to vote for that change, most of the board members refused to act. They voted 5-2 to keep the ban on “Satanism” in place. One board member said allowing Satanic clothing would open the door to kids demanding to be the “starting quarterback at the first home football game.” Another said he didn’t want to “live in fear,” whatever that meant. The board’s president even said this was a case of people trying to “push their values” on the district… as if that’s a bad thing when those values happen to be perfectly sensible.
In the wake of that move, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to the district vowing to take legal action. They weren’t going to wait for a child to be punished for wearing clothes depicting Satanism, either. FFRF pointed out that the dress code itself was a constitutional violation.
“Satanism is a religion, and students cannot be singled out for punishment or ridicule for expressing religious or nonreligious viewpoints in their public schools,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to Hays USD 489 Board of Education President Craig Pallister. “The district impermissibly discriminates on the basis of religion, and violates the free speech rights of its students, when it prohibits expression of certain religious viewpoints.”
… The current dress code’s ban on references to Satanism acts as a prior restraint on student speech, FFRF explains. The U.S. Supreme Court has firmly established that regardless of whether a rule has actually been enforced, the codified threat of punishment, coupled with unfettered discretion for enforcement by a government actor, is itself a constitutional violation.
“The district would never even consider prohibiting students from wearing crosses or Christian references on their clothing,” remarks FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “This school district must treat its nonreligious and minority religious students and their families the same way it does those who hold the majority belief.”
Adam Steinbaugh, a First Amendment attorney, also filed an open records request with the district regarding the Satanism issue.
All of this may have done the trick. Not the threats, mind you, but the additional reminders that this was an indefensible position with a very simple solution.
This morning, after meeting with their attorney, as well as an attorney from the Kansas Association of School Boards, the school board voted 6-1 to repeal the Satanism ban in the dress code, according to Hays Post reporter Cristina Janney:
The revised policy unifies all the school dress code policies in the district to match board and KASB policy. It says …
“Students must dress in a manner that is not obscene, offensive or substantially or materially disruptive to the learning environment. Apparel that is sexually suggestive or that promotes violence, illegal activities, drugs, alcohol or tobacco or that is determined to be gang related is prohibited.”
In other words, they literally just crossed the word “Satanism” off the list of prohibited references.
Curt Vajnar, the board member who claimed allowing Satanic clothes was like a kid demanding to be starting quarterback, admitted he was on the losing side here before voting to approve the new dress code:
“I will vote yes for this,” Vajnar said. “I don’t like it. The liability of teachers and administrators does concern me. If we are going to lose millions of dollars in a lawsuit, and we have no way to win, we’re caught.“
(I wish he would’ve elaborated on what he doesn’t like. Go ahead and say it out loud. Does he think students should only promote religions that appear on his preferred list? Which ones don’t make the cut? Please let us know.)
Mary Turner, the parent who rightly pointed out the problem with the dress code, told me this afternoon that she’s happy to see this outcome even if it took a detour along the way:
I’m glad that the school board ultimately chose to follow the law. I had faith that they wanted the best for the community and this decision demonstrates their dedication to doing the right thing even if it took them a little bit to come to the right decision.
That’s a very polite way to say she just saved their asses from a potential lawsuit. Instead of spiking the football and doing a dance in the end zone, she’s very respectfully heading back to the huddle.
School begins next week. Students will now be allowed to wear clothes with (non-disruptive) references to Satanism. We’ll see if any of them take advantage of it.
(Portions of this article were published earlier)
(Portions of this article were published earlier)