Law & the Courts

It’s All about the Publicity, Not the Law: Satanists Sue for Religious Freedom

Satanic Temple’s “reproductive right” appeal (inset)

An organization called the Satanic Temple believes that the First Amendment and Missouri’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) require that Missouri transform itself into a university-style “safe space” where precious snowflakes are protected from hearing differing opinions. The Satanists’ contentions rest on assumptions that are laughably false.

The Satanic Temple filed two lawsuits challenging Missouri’s abortion laws. In a federal lawsuit, it maintains that Missouri’s restrictions on abortion violate the First Amendment’s Free Exercise and Establishment clauses. And in a state lawsuit, it asserts that the abortion laws violate Missouri’s RFRA. These lawsuits are more significant for their comic effect than as challenges to Missouri law.

These Satanists do not actually worship the devil; their shtick is to troll religious people. Their webpage indicates that they oppose groups “who pledge submission to an ethereal supernatural deity” and that they reject “items of faith-based belief” and “belief in a personal Satan.”

In their federal suit, the plaintiffs argue that requiring women to receive informational packets before aborting a child violates the First Amendment by exposing women to “religious beliefs they do not have.” Ironically, a group that encourages its members to “hone critical thinking” is thrown into a tizzy by the idea of exposure to an opposing viewpoint.

The plaintiffs’ argument is frivolous, even if one accepts their claim that Missouri’s documents contain “religious beliefs.” Religious liberty protections, while robust, are nowhere near as powerful as liberals seem to believe.  

Last year, in Greece v. Galloway, the Supreme Court held that the government does not violate the First Amendment “merely by exposing constituents to prayer they would rather not hear.” The Establishment Clause is not violated “any time a person experiences a sense of affront from the expression of contrary religious views.”

Justice Kennedy did indicate that this holding applies to “mature adults” who are not “readily susceptible to religious indoctrination.” Will the Satanic Temple argue that their members do not fit that description?

The plaintiffs would lose even if the First Amendment protected their fragile sensibilities from encountering religious expression. Missouri’s informational packets on fetal development do not “promote . . . religious beliefs,” as the Satanists claim. The literature simply “inform[s] women about normal human embryonic and fetal development” and provides other information of a non-religious nature.

The Establishment Clause is not violated “any time a person experiences a sense of affront from the expression of contrary religious views.”

In Casey v. Planned Parenthood, the Supreme Court upheld a Pennsylvania law requiring women to receive similar information. The Court concluded that this was “a reasonable measure to ensure an informed choice, one which might cause the woman to choose childbirth over abortion,” and that the law furthered the state’s “legitimate goal of protecting the life of the unborn . . . even when in so doing the State expressed a preference for childbirth over abortion.” Members of the Satanic Temple appear to consider any statement they disagree with a sinister “religious belief.” The Supreme Court does not see things that way.

The plaintiffs’ RFRA case in the State of Missouri is equally meritless. The plaintiffs challenge Missouri’s pre-abortion waiting period, the requirement (again) that women receive informational packets, and the option that they are offered to view a sonogram.

Many liberals erroneously believe that religious people can use RFRAs as trump cards to violate any law they disagree with. The Satanic Temple wants to apply this bogeyman version of the statute rather than the actual law.

Similar to the federal RFRA, Missouri’s law states that “a governmental authority may not restrict a person’s free exercise of religion” unless doing so is “essential to further a compelling governmental interest, and is not unduly restrictive.” The Satanists do not allege that the laws restrict their free exercise of religion, and, even if they did, the laws satisfy the exception for a compelling governmental interest.

The plaintiffs do not argue that Missouri’s laws require them to do anything that their religion prohibits or not to do anything it requires. Instead, they argue that the laws violate RFRA because they may cause members of the Satanic Temple to encounter ideas contrary to their religious tenets. Courts should defer to religious adherents’ understanding of their religious obligations, but such adherents are still required to state those obligations and explain how they conflict with specific legal requirements or prohibitions. Just as the First Amendment does not prohibit exposure to concepts one disagrees with, neither does RFRA.

The plaintiffs would lose even if a court generously reinterpreted their complaint as stating that the plaintiffs are religiously prohibited from following Missouri’s abortion laws. The laws are consistent with the exception clause in Missouri RFRA’s, because they further a compelling interest in a manner that is not unduly restrictive.

The plaintiffs’ tenets include the belief that a woman’s body is “inviolable and subject to her will alone” and that a woman must “make decisions regarding her health based on her best scientific understanding of the world.” Interpreted in the best possible light, the plaintiffs’ claims would exempt them from following, or possibly even learning about, all drug laws, any regulation of the medical profession, laws against driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, mandatory-vaccination laws, and laws prohibiting incest or underage sex. The compelling-interest exception in Missouri’s RFRA covers all of those laws as well as the specific rules challenged in this case.

From Roe v. Wade onward, the Supreme Court has recognized that states have an “important and legitimate interest in potential life.” In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, it noted that “from the outset of the pregnancy” the state has an interest “in protecting the health of the woman and the life of the fetus.” The Court has recognized other state interests in the abortion context, including “ensuring [that] so grave a choice is well informed,” “promoting respect for human life at all stages in the pregnancy,” “preserving and promoting fetal life,” “regulating the medical profession in order to promote respect for life, including life of the unborn,” and “protecting the integrity and ethics of the medical profession.” At least several of those interests are “compelling.”

Laws requiring that women receive informational packets, have the option to view a sonogram, and wait a short period of time before making a “grave decision” are not “unduly restrictive.” This is especially true since the Satanic Temple never even attempted to articulate how the laws restrict its members’ exercise of religion.

During the hysteria that followed Hobby Lobby and the passage of Indiana’s RFRA, many liberals railed against an imaginary version of religious liberty that would give religious people unchecked ability to flout the law. Such demagoguery may be effective in public debate, but the Satanic Temple seems to have made the mistake of believing the hype. The Satanic Temple’s attempt to sue using the media’s wholly imagined version of religious liberty ought to be laughed out of court.

Howard Slugh — Howard Slugh is an attorney practicing in Washington, D.C. He is a co-founder of the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty.

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