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Every few months, like a barely-comprehended cultural drumbeat, Satanists are in the news—countering a Christian monument on public land with one of their own, declaring that an enormous cross is actually a Satanic symbol, or insisting that a Florida public school distributing evangelical coloring books also distribute “The Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities.” If they pay any attention at all, most Americans probably roll their eyes, assuming it’s just another fringe group looking for attention.

It’s much more interesting than that.

The Satanic Temple (TST) is a religious and political group that lobbies for progressive causes, including the separation of church and state and reproductive rights. They are non-theistic Satanists, meaning that they do not believe in a literal Satan. It’s the character of Satan described in Romantic poetry that they admire, a mythological embodiment of self-determination and resistance to arbitrary authority. Their core beliefs are articulated in The Seven Tenets, a group of moral precepts that most people would recognize as thoughtful and positive. And in 2019, still non-theistic, they gained recognition as a church from the IRS.

Their status as a religious organization has greatly enhanced their ability to challenge attempts by Christian organizations to claim privileges not accorded to other faiths. As a church themselves, The Satanic Temple can now insist on equal treatment: If you can have a monument, or a symbol, or a coloring book in a public space, goes the very sound constitutional reasoning, so can we. 

In the process, TST has opened a productive challenge to the very idea of religious privilege and its impact on society. Since the 2014 Hobby Lobby v. Burwell decision, which ruled that Hobby Lobby’s Christian beliefs grant it a degree of exemption from complying with the Affordable Care Act, TST has filed a series of lawsuits pitting their own religious freedom against state abortion restrictions. TST’s third tenet states that “one’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s will alone.” Because the third tenet is a sincerely held religious belief, they argue, TST members should be legally exempt from restrictions on abortion access––at least in states that also have “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (RFRA) laws, which provide enhanced leverage to religious freedom claims. So far, all of TST’s lawsuits on this front have been dismissed on procedural grounds.

TST has opened a productive challenge to the very idea of religious privilege and its impact on society.

With the demise of Roe v. Wade, there has been renewed focus on, as well as confusion about, TST’s reproductive rights cases. On social media, some people have wrongly assumed that TST has already won its case and that Satanists are exempt from abortion restrictions. In theory, this could result in abortion-seekers inadvertently running afoul of the law. Meanwhile, critics of TST point out that they keep losing these lawsuits and suggest that the group has somehow lost its way. Critics have also argued that publicly linking Satanism to abortion is only giving political ammunition to their conservative Christians. Most legal scholars regard TST’s strategy as a longshot, even those who admire their approach as “clever.” And now the Supreme Court’s conservative majority has struck down Roe v. Wade, their case is likely going to get harder, rather than easier. 

All of this raises the question: Why does TST continue to spend resources fighting these lawsuits?

I am not, and have never been, a Satanist of any sort. But I have spent years studying TST as they reflect and refract America’s culture wars. As a scholar of new religious movements (NRMs), my job is often to act as “worldview translator,” rendering alternative viewpoints understandable. To understand why TST keeps going to court, it should first be noted that new religious movements (NRMs) like TST often end up in court because minority religions have greater need of constitutional protections, and groups with new beliefs and practices are more likely to raise unprecedented challenges. A lot of important jurisprudence concerning the free exercise clause of the First Amendment arose from lawsuits concerning such groups as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, and the Nation of Islam. Second, TST’s persistence in pursuing solutions through the courts––even unsympathetic courts where there is little chance of success––makes a certain sense within the larger value system of Romantic Satanism.

The case for abortion as a religious right

Following the Hobby Lobby case, TST’s legal strategy hinges on RFRA laws, which apply to the federal government as well as many state governments. Under RFRA, religious freedom cannot be restricted unless 1) the government has a compelling interest to impose the restriction, and 2) the government achieves said interest in a way that places the least burden on the religion. So far, TST has targeted states with RFRA laws that impose various restrictions on access to abortion. For example, Missouri requires that people seeking abortion read an “informed consent booklet” stating that “Abortion will terminate the life of a separate, unique, living human being,” and then wait 72 hours before receiving an abortion. By arguing that such requirements burden their sincerely held religious beliefs, TST has tried to force courts to answer one question: Do the religious freedom laws that exempted Hobby Lobby from compliance with the Affordable Care Act also exempt Satanists from state abortion restrictions?

So far, courts have ducked this question on procedural grounds. For example, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that since TST’s plaintiff, a woman known as “Mary Doe,” was no longer pregnant by the time they heard her case, she had no legal standing to sue. In an interview for this piece, TST spokesperson Lucien Greaves described the logic in many of these rulings as “convoluted and deranged,” adding, “I see how different the courts are for religious minorities.”

With Roe struck down, conservative judges may be more likely to give TST a straight answer: No. Under RFRA, the government can still restrict religious freedom provided they can demonstrate a compelling interest to do so. So in the Missouri case, the state might have claimed that they have a compelling interest to make sure women are informed about the procedure before receiving an abortion. Then TST could counter that the restrictions do not actually serve this purpose and are really intended to deny people their right to an abortion. But if abortion is illegal, the state is free to argue that abortion bans serve the compelling interest of preventing the murder of the unborn. In theory, TST might be able to use such a ruling to challenge the state’s right to define when life begins. Significantly, TST has argued that the separation of church and state means the government cannot dictate answers to questions that are inherently religious. But any path to victory would be long, arduous, and uncertain.

Losing as proof of sincerity

Despite these obstacles, TST still believes the law is on their side. Lucien Greaves expressed frustration with “knee-jerk” claims on social media that Satanists had already won the right to abortion on demand. But he is also frustrated by the idea that if TST loses cases, then it has no reason to exist. At stake in debates about TST’s legal track record are competing understandings of the nature and purpose of the organization. Some critics regard TST as a “legal ploy,” invented as a creative strategy to resist Christian hegemony. From this perspective, if TST loses cases, then the “ploy” has failed and the group should disband. In its early years, TST often did resemble a creative stratagem more than a full-fledged religious movement. But Greaves insists that TST is a genuine religious community with sincerely-held religious beliefs that are just as worthy of Constitutional protection as Christian doctrines.

He also thinks it pays to be optimistic, and that there are consequences to being overly cynical. If, as Greaves claims, judges rule differently when dealing with minority religions than with established ones, then public attitudes matter: If society takes a group seriously, then judges may be inclined to do so also. “The only thing that will make courts rule honestly is some sense of shame,” said Greaves, “that the public won’t stand for this.” In this sense, the narrative that TST are “trolls” or otherwise some simulacrum of a “real” religion hurts their chances of receiving justice.

[TST’s] attitude toward defeat makes sense within a worldview of values, rituals, and symbolism that all revolve around a fallen angel.

Asked about legal setbacks, Greaves shrugged. “What else are we to do? All we can promise is to fight the good fight.” This attitude toward defeat makes sense within a worldview of values, rituals, and symbolism that all revolve around a fallen angel. As Christian protestors are fond of reminding TST, Satan “is the eternal loser.” In Paradise Lost, Milton turned Satan’s refusal to accept defeat into something heroic and even superhuman, with such lines as:

All is not lost; the unconquerable will
And study of revenge, immortal hate
And courage never to submit or yield;
(And what is else not to be overcome?)

In the 19th century, Romantic poets celebrated Satan for his willingness to defy an opponent who is cruel and infinitely more powerful than himself. Their writings became an important influence on TST’s progressive Satanism.

Theologian Paul Tillich famously defined religion as being about “an ultimate concern,” a goal more important than anything else. It seems that the ultimate concern for many members of TST is to establish—officially and publicly—that the United States is a religiously plural society with a secular government, not a Christian nation with a religious government that privileges Christianity. All of their various campaigns and lawsuits can be read as an attempt to establish this fact as a social reality, and they have sacrificed enormous amounts of resources, their reputations, and their safety in pursuit of this goal.

One of the main obstacles to TST’s legal claims is the question of their sincerity. Paradoxically, the greatest evidence of their religious sincerity may be their continued insistence in the face of defeat that the law is on their side.

Joseph Laycock is an associate professor of religious studies at Texas State University and an editor for the journal Nova Religio. His recent books include "Speak of the Devil: How the Satanic Temple...