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Who Knew You Could Fight Religion with Religion?

The Satanic Temple — TST — is a registered religion. 

As such, it enjoys all the legal rights and benefits afforded to organized Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and the various sects and sub-sects with whom it shares favored sections of the tax code.

As religions go, TST is not theistic. Its members use satanic imagery as a performative tool, from which they've built a distinct brand of theatrical activism — a clever variation on the principles of civil disobedience — that lets them challenge foolish laws in high-profile ways.

Their lawyers draw on the same legal theories and precedents typified by SCOTUS in the Hobby Lobby decision — and they sue, under those precedents, for the same treatment under the law as any other religion.

TST is particularly adept at exploiting the media, both to highlight their cause of the moment, and to make vividly clear why church and state are meant to be kept separate.

In 2015, the Oklahoma state legislature, in its wisdom, voted to put a large replica of the Ten Commandments — just as they were handed down to Charlton Heston — on the statehouse lawn.

TST sued the state on religious grounds, insisting on the right to place an eight-foot-high bronze statue of Baphomet, an avatar of Satan, on the same piece of state property. You can imagine how that went over.

They introduced Baphomet's statue at a press conference, with members appearing in full satanic regalia. They drew exactly the kinds of angry crowds they'd planned for. Hundreds of deeply offended citizens showed up in protest, aggressively waving their banners and posters, loudly denouncing Satan and standing up for Jesus, neither of whom could be reached for comment.

The local media lapped it up, as they were meant to, and became complicit in stoking the outrage, in laying bare the rank hypocrisy for anyone with half a brain to see.

But while on one level this was political theater, on another it was serious litigation. TST lawyers went to court using the same "religious freedom" language as the radical right. They built an airtight case for putting Satan and the Ten Commandments side-by-side. After several years of litigation, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ordered the removal of the Ten Commandments monument, before Baphomet's statue could be installed.

Which was, of course, the point of the exercise. TST fought religion with religion, and they won.

It was one of several wins recounted in the documentary "Hail Satan?" — which traces the rise of the organization over the last decade, and underscores its aggressively altruistic beliefs.

Those beliefs are codified in the "Seven Fundamental Tenets," which are worth taking two minutes to read. They express eloquently the core values of a liberal democracy — compassion, justice, science, bodily autonomy — with no mention of either Satan or God.

TST has honed these values into a working religion, with the same legal standing as Catholics and Southern Baptists, but without the misogyny and pedophilia.

There are now over 700,000 members in 46 congregations, each with its own local projects. Over the last decade, TST has distributed socks to homeless shelters and tampons to prisons (the "Menstruatin' With Satan" program). They work to counter the spread of pseudo-science, especially in the mental health field. They sue on behalf of kids who've faced corporal punishment in school. They advocate for recovering addicts. They organize blood drives, confront hate groups, adopt highways. The list goes on.

The performance-art component — the over-the-top ceremonies, the outlandish cosplay, the made-for-TV events — varies from chapter to chapter, and from project to project.

But now, with the fall of Roe v. Wade, TST seems to have found a cause worthy of the resources they can bring to it. They'd been fighting anti-abortion laws already, even before the Dobbs decision, but now they've gotten feisty on a number of fronts.

They recently opened an online abortion service in New Mexico, called "Samuel Alito's Mom's Satanic Abortion Clinic." The name is an open tribute to:

"...those, like the clinic's namesake, who couldn't choose legal abortion, no matter how much they may have wanted to."

They're deeply engaged in Texas, with litigation that challenges the state's anti-choice laws on religious grounds. They argue that the bans interfere with their beliefs, just as contraception interfered with the beliefs of the Hobby Lobby plaintiffs.

Those beliefs are laid out in TST's "Religious Abortion Ritual," in which an abortion seeker vows that the right to a first-trimester abortion is a fundamental tenet of her religion. The ritual serves as official documentation of the member's beliefs, and forms the legal basis for the lawsuit.

Will they win such suits in such a benighted state as Texas? Hard to say. But every bit of litigation helps. Every lawsuit has the potential to strip more paint off another piece of toxic legislation, exposing it for the poorly conceived, legally dubious, wantonly cruel measure it's intended to be.

Which is why we're now seeing others adopting TST's strategy, if not its tactics.

In Kentucky, a conservative synagogue is suing the state, saying that banning abortion violates the religious freedom of its congregation. In Indiana, another group is bringing a class-action suit on behalf of "all persons in Indiana whose religious beliefs direct them to obtain abortions in situations prohibited [by the ban]." There are similar suits in Florida and Missouri, with more brewing in other states. Often spearheaded by clergy, the groups bringing these actions are consciously following the legal path laid out by The Satanic Temple.

TST's tactics are not for everybody. They deliberately amplify the outrage of small-minded people, but even the most open-minded of us can be put off by the flamboyance of their antics. In researching this piece, I found myself questioning the wisdom — even if only from a marketing standpoint — of such in-your-face provocation. Yes, it attracts attention, which is a vital part of the effort. But where's the benefit in offending people who are on your side, even if it's half tongue-in-cheek?

Then I caught myself. The Satanic Temple, I realized, is not the outrage.

The outrage is the existence of the laws they're confronting. The outrage is that forced birth is now the law of the land in half our states. The outrage is that theocracy is being actively advanced by an illegitimate Supreme Court. The outrage is that we're being stripped of rights we thought were settled long ago.

Fighting religion with religion is not something history looks kindly on. But if that's the new reality, if that's what it takes going forward, then it's good to know there are people like TST out there, getting really good at it.

 

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