Last Thursday, I witnessed a deposition conducted by a lawyer for The Satanic Temple in which sworn testimony from a representative for the City of Boston was taken. The Satanic Temple filed suit against Boston following unsuccessful attempts to gain an invitation to deliver a pre-city-council-meeting invocation, typically opened with a Christian prayer. The deposition was an opportunity for The Satanic Temple to take the testimony of a representative of Boston, in hopes of clarifying Boston’s seemingly nonsensical position that they maintain a public city council prayer policy that is simultaneously non-discriminatory and by invitation only. The deposition took place at The Satanic Temple’s headquarters in Salem, MA.
In writing about the “pray-for-pay” scheme that was revealed by Boston’s Compliance Director and Staff Council Christine O’Donnell under oath, I find myself deeply concerned that I will somehow fail to convey to my audience the full outrageousness of the scandal. I fear the possibility that news outlets will largely ignore our press release, and that disclosure of the pray-for-pay scheme will come and go with no real consequences for those who engaged in this flagrant corruption.
The core story is simple: the City of Boston—which still maintains a discriminatory invitation-only policy in which government representatives are allowed to choose which religious voices they will allow to have access to a public forum or not—had been paying the individuals delivering pre-city council meeting prayers, up till around 2016 or 2017. After The Satanic Temple requested to give an invocation, and as a result of that request, city officials decided to stop administering payments. In her deposition, O’Donnell explained that individual council members invite, and traditionally have invited, “personal contacts” or people with a “political connection” to give the city council meeting prayer, whether or not those people had a connection to a larger religious organization.
Any time that government officials are allowed to give out public funds to “personal contacts” or people with whom they hold some “political connections,” this is corruption. It does not matter how much this honorarium was (and currently we do not know). It is unconscionable that representatives of the government could, even for a moment, think that it was legally or ethically appropriate to maintain a discriminatory policy whereby they paid friends and associates to engage in a public forum that was denied to all others.
I am not worried that readers will not understand this. This is textbook corruption, and it is obvious.
Yet, I still worry that the story will not get the attention that it deserves. Perhaps the fact that the city stopped paying for prayers will give it a feel of “old news,” though the city still defends its open discrimination. Maybe “pray for pay” appears benign in a nation flooded with theocratic efforts to overturn democracy, and perhaps the average reader will not appreciate how alarming Boston’s attempted codification of corruption actually is.
I have no way of predicting which stories will catch the public’s attention, and which will not, but I do feel certain that the only way in which we (The Satanic Temple) can win our ongoing lawsuit against the City of Boston is to raise the public’s ire against the city’s abuses in the press. The courts have not shown themselves to be neutral in regard to us generally, but the stench of bias is particularly pungent in Boston where the city’s legal council appears confident and comfortable that the court is on their side.
And they have every reason for their confidence. They have defaulted in this case twice, failing to file in a timely manner, and both times they were given a pass by the judge. For our part, we attempted to schedule a deposition with the mayor, Michelle Wu, who, as a council member, personally penned the denial letter to The Satanic Temple’s invocation request, and we were chastised by the judge for “seeking publicity.” Wu was granted a protective order. During the deposition with the Boston representative, The Satanic Temple was smugly told again and again that only Michelle Wu could possibly answer our most relevant questions.
As for the question as to how Boston reconciles the conflicting notions of “non-discriminatory” and “invitation-only,” their representative was advised by an attorney at the deposition not to answer any questions defining “discrimination.” It was an insulting refusal to engage with the basic argument presented, and one would hope that a refusal to even discuss what discrimination is would be understood as forfeiting the right to simultaneously argue that one’s actions are discriminatory or not. Boston is counting on a judge that is likely to forgo neutrality and reason to find in their favor, even as they flout the most basic rules of engagement.
Boston’s above-the-law attitude has not, for a moment, been shaken by this lawsuit. Even as we are litigating against Boston for discrimination now, the city refuses to answer another equal access request of ours. Recently, Boston flew a Christian flag outside of City Hall, while refusing to address a request from The Satanic Temple to fly a flag as well.
To me, it looks a lot like the City of Boston is depending on its friends in the judiciary to ignore its unconstitutional practices. I am convinced that the appearance of neutrality will only return if it becomes clear that the public is paying attention.