Overview:

The Supreme Court argues it stands for religious liberty. But the actions of the court tell another story.

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Since its adoption as the national motto in 1956, the inclusion of the phrase “In God We Trust” on the American national currency has faced legal challenges, leading to unlikely judicial claims about the phrase’s secular intent and meaning. In response to a lawsuit against the government in 1970, the Ninth Circuit ruled that “It is quite obvious that the national motto and the slogan on coinage and currency ‘In God We Trust’ has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. Its use is of a patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise.”

Responding to another challenge filed against the motto in 2006, a U.S. judge made the improbable claim that, “The national motto is excluded from First Amendment significance because the motto ‘has no theological or ritualistic impact’ and is of a purely secular, ‘patriotic’ and ‘ceremonial character’,” referring to “In God We Trust” as “a secular national slogan.”

In 2004, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote a concurring opinion upholding the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance’s addition of the words “under God” stating, “the reasonable observer . . . fully aware of our national history and the origins of such practices, would not perceive these acknowledgements [to religious history] as signifying a government endorsement of any specific religion.” 

In fact, this spurious argument for the eventual secularization of religious phrases and iconography has been used to justify a variety of encroachments of religion into spaces where “the reasonable observer” might feel that the Establishment Clause would prohibit them from Ten Commandments monuments to a large cross placed on public grounds. 

But while these claims regarding the “the reasonable observer” and the “obvious” lack of “governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise” following the allowance of religious expression on government property may have seemed unlikely at the times that these judicial proclamations were made, it is undeniable that they have been fully disproved by now. That is, they are proven false if we are to assume that the preponderance of American “observers” are anything approaching “reasonable.”

Seeking equal access to public forums where expressions of religion have been invited, The Satanic Temple often witnesses the degree to which pre-existing “patriotic or ceremonial” acknowledgments of religious “national history” have led to the widespread impression of exclusive license for the Christian viewpoint over the public domain . Unsolicited “observers” send us images of the dollar bill with the motto circled, apparently thinking that their case for excluding non-Christian religious expression has been sufficiently made. Every time that public comments have been allowed to weigh in on issues regarding Satanist invocations at City Council meetings, or public displays in First Amendment-protected forums, multiple people will unfailingly proclaim, with certainty, that the national motto, the Pledge of Allegiance, any and all public references to “God,” disprove the notion that the government must remain neutral on the issue religious viewpoint.

A variation of the “reasonable observers” argument, which judges use to deny legitimate Establishment Clause claims on the grounds that public expressions of religion magically become devoid of any possible specific religious meaning, was invoked by the Supreme Court in its 2001 Good News Club v. Milford Middle School ruling in favor of allowing religious after school clubs to use the facilities of public schools from which to proselytize to children. Writing for the majority, Justice Thomas disregarded concerns that the parents of schoolchildren might be led to believe that the school was endorsing religion by simply stating that the court did not “believe that such an argument could be reasonably advanced.” Further, because the after school club “meetings were held in a combined high school resource room and middle school special education room, not in an elementary school classroom,” and because the “instructors are not schoolteachers,” and “the children in the group are not all the same age as in the normal classroom setting; their ages range from 6 to 12,” the court concluded that not even “small children would perceive endorsement here.”

Here, too, The Satanic Temple has put these assumptions regarding public perceptions to the test, revealing just how far removed from reality they are. In offering “After School Satan Clubs” as an alternative to proselytizing biblical fundamentalist after school programs, we have seen first-hand how the public at-large, parents, journalists, and even school boards, assume that a religious organization’s offer of an after school club to be held within the public school facilities constitutes an endorsement, by the school district, for the religious organization operating the club or their beliefs.

Nowhere was this more starkly demonstrated than in York County, Pennsylvania where the school board reacted to a recent parent’s request to lead an After School Satan Club with demands that “Satan” be removed from the club’s name, followed by a public meeting where the board invited community criticism against Satanism itself before voting against allowing the club’s establishment at all.  

To understand the Supreme Court’s Good News Club ruling at all is to understand how flagrantly illegal the York County School Board’s decision to vote upon the Satanic after school club was. But the public comments preceding the school board’s vote also revealed the flaw in the Supreme Court’s reasoning which insisted that neither parents, nor even small children, would “perceive endorsement” by the school districts themselves for the religious organizations using the school districts’ facilities. The fact that the After School Satan Club was put to a vote, in fact, shows that the school board itself felt that the club’s access to school facilities was dependent upon the school district’s endorsement. 

Predictably, the public comments decrying the prospect of a Satanist club all focused entirely on claims surrounding what the commenters imagined Satanism to be, along with speculation as to the “real” intentions of the After School Satan Club. At no point did the school board indicate that such analysis was irrelevant, or outside of their purview. The board offered no commentary at all, following the public statements from the community, before voting to exclude the Satanist club.

Of course, public officials preferring one or more religious viewpoint to the exclusion of any others is undeniably a case of constitutionally prohibited religious discrimination, but many of the current, divisive battles over religious expression we are currently suffering would not be happening at all if it were not for another damaging lie that the Supreme Court has come to endorse about religious liberty: the notion that the categorical denial of religion in public forums constitutes a form of religious discrimination equal to the preferential treatment of any one religious viewpoint over any others.

The government is not allowed to open a public forum and allow only certain religious viewpoints to be represented.

A “limited public forum,” as defined in a ruling by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals “is a sub-category of the designated public forum, where the government opens a nonpublic forum but reserves access to it for only certain groups or categories of speech.” The government is not allowed to open a public forum and allow only certain religious viewpoints to be represented, but it should be able to open a limited public forum with a broad, neutral, and equally applied categorical prohibition upon religion.

“Where does it end?” I am asked in hostile interviews regarding The Satanic Temple’s After School Satan Clubs, “Are we going to allow a KKK club for children next?” 

Some variation of this complaint is commonly thrown at me, as though it is my personal responsibility to place limits on the public forum, or to limit our own engagement with public forums so as to prevent controversies. The government should be allowed to limit public forums in such a way as to prohibit politically identifiable after school clubs and teachings, just as they should be allowed to prevent religious after school clubs. That is not discrimination. Choosing to approve or exclude only certain political or religious clubs – that is discrimination. The same applies to a variety of public forums where the Supreme Court has ruled that any prohibition of religious expression – even universally and neutrally applied – constitutes religious discrimination. It is because of this spurious definition of “religious liberty” that so many public forums have become a battleground for Christian Nationalists to attempt to establish religious supremacy.

As the current culture war becomes more contentious by the moment, and Christian Nationalism threatens to reduce the United States into a theocracy, it is time that we demand of the Supreme Court acknowledge the false assumptions upon which many religious liberty rulings are based, and which have broadly had a negative impact on civil liberties overall.

Such acknowledgement would admit that whether “reasonable” or not, a not-insignificant number of citizens and public officials view religious expression in public forums as a government endorsement of the particular religious speech on display. And that the neutrally applied prohibition against religious content in a public forum is not religious discrimination. Picking and choosing between religious viewpoints is religious discrimination.

Acknowledgement of these two points, while adjusting accordingly to their reality, would do much to lay to rest a lot of the needless legal warfare being waged in the name of religion today. This effort to face the clear facts could also open some space for the rebuilding of bridges that have been burned in our current hyperpartisan, polarized political climate, spurred on, in no small part, by the judiciary’s irresponsibility. 

Lucien Greaves is the most prominent contemporary Satanist in the world and front person for the band Satanic Planet. As spokesperson for The Satanic Temple, Greaves has gained international attention...