How the Satanic Temple is Changing the Church/State Debate in Arizona


    Let it never be said that Arizona politics is predictable.  The Satanic Temple of Tucson has just eliminated prayer from Phoenix City Council meetings without speaking a word.  This almost effortless victory for the group is the latest in a series across the nation that is changing the face of the debate surrounding the separation of church and state.

Joining the Process

    The raucous debate over council prayers began the way most other Satanic Temple victories have begun: with a simple gesture of participation in the political process.  In this case, the group opted to take part in the Phoenix City Council’s longstanding tradition of allowing members of the religious community to give a prayer of invocation at the opening of its meetings.  Nearly a month and a half later, the news suddenly went viral, and all hell broke loose, so to speak.

    Overwhelmed with messages of concern and outrage from their constituents, councilmembers had only one meeting before the group was scheduled to deliver their invocation to figure out how to stop it.  Thus began a packed, two-hour public comment session fraught with emotional testimony, followed by another hour of rancorous debate and accusations amongst the councilmembers.

    Four of the nine members of the council concocted a proposal to only allow specifically invited guests to pray, hoping to change the rules at the last minute.  State Representative Anthony Kearn showed up to read a letter signed by 24 other members of the state legislature, including the Speaker of the House, urging the council to adopt the emergency measure.  City Attorney Brad Holm warned the council that such a proposal would violate First Amendment rights if it was applied retroactively.  Additionally, the Satanists would almost certainly sue if denied equal access, guaranteeing that expensive litigation would follow.  “We would be likely to lose that case,” Mr. Holm said bluntly.  But Phoenix was determined to keep The Satanic Temple from the microphone.

    “The root word [of ‘invocation’] is to ‘invoke’,” said one speaker.  “So are we invoking the blessings of God on our state and our city, or are we invoking the curses of the deity spoken of that they serve as Satan?"

Meanwhile, Back in Tucson...

 Michelle Shortt, Arizona Satanic Temple / J. Chunglo Photography

Michelle Shortt, Arizona Satanic Temple / J. Chunglo Photography

    Michelle Shortt, who was scheduled to actually give the Satanic invocation, watched the meeting from the safety of a Tucson office, mortified by the chaos.  “We were pretty glad we didn’t go.  I think us being there would have agitated the mob that much more,” Ms. Shortt said.  She uses the term “mob” very deliberately. 

    “They were making all kinds of crazy speculations.  They thought we were going to come in and do a ritual, make a sacrifice, call upon the dark forces to bring a curse upon Phoenix.  You could have changed the wardrobe of the people who attended that meeting to colonial clothing.  That’s honestly what it felt like watching that livestream.  Give them some pitchforks and torches and it would have been spot on.”

    But it wasn’t just The Satanic Temple that was being attacked.  The council also began to turn on each other and on city staffers.  Councilman Sal Diciccio was especially aggressive, calling into question the faith of other members and accusing them of plotting with Satanists to end prayer in the city.  By the end of the night, Councilwoman Laura Pastor was in tears.  Mayor Greg Stanton called Diciccio’s attacks “the most despicable thing I have ever witnessed in my service to the city.”  By the end of the night, the council voted 5-4 to end opening invocations altogether.

    The situation was playing out much like it had in other cities.  In January of 2015, Orange County, Florida, faced the same dilemma that Phoenix City Council was now facing.  Once a year, the county held a “Religious Freedom Day”, allowing a Christian organization to distribute Bibles to children on the grounds of public schools.  The Satanic Temple declared its intention to join the event by creating and handing out “The Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities”, a coloring book that is still available for free in PDF format online.  Orange County Public Schools buckled, canceling the event altogether.

    In 2014, The Satanic Temple responded to a monument of the Ten Commandments at the Oklahoma State Capitol by crowdsourcing funds for a statue of the occult, goat-headed figure of Baphomet to erect nearby.  The money was successfully raised and the statue was forged, but the Supreme Court ruled the Ten Commandments monument unconstitutional before it could be installed.  The statue was instead unveiled at a fundraising party event in Detroit, where Christian groups held a protest.  Demonstrators wept and prayed, invoking the blood of Christ over the city in a form of “spiritual warfare” employed by some evangelical sects.

Much Ado About Nothing?

    To an ideologically detached observer, the social firestorms caused by The Satanic Temple might seem to be overreactions.  After all, members don’t even believe in Satan.  On the contrary, the seven core tenets of the group are hardly controversial, including principles like “One should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason,” and “If we make a mistake, we should do our best to rectify it and resolve any harm that may have been caused.”  These ideas may seem closer to a Sunday school lesson than the Necronomicon, but the name “Satan” throws a wrench into what would otherwise be considered skeptical humanism. 

    For the Temple, the character of Satan represents “the ultimate icon for the selfless revolt against tyranny, free and rational inquiry, and the responsible pursuit of happiness”.  Though the group does not believe in the Biblical story of creation or the fall of humankind, they view Adam and Eve’s eating from the Tree of Knowledge as a noble rebellion.  Knowledge, they believe – especially of good and evil –  is exactly what the world needs, and the disobedience of anyone who would prevent the acquisition of that knowledge is to be praised rather than apologized for.  But this does not deter associations of wickedness with the character of Satan.

    “People associate Satan with ultimate evil, so I can understand where those sentiments are coming from,” Ms. Shortt says, “but it’s not our responsibility to educate the ignorant.  Those who are curious, who are interested in us, could take two minutes to go to our website and see our tenets.  They will see that we will stand for justice and empathy and reason above the supernatural.  Those who do not take the time to do so choose to remain ignorant.”

    Whether opponents of The Satanic Temple have failed to do research, or whether that research simply has not affected their judgment of the group is difficult to say.  What is certain is that the organization is revealing a considerable disconnect between many religious communities and the constitutional principles they claim to hold sacrosanct.  Unlike other groups committed to the separation of church and state, like the Freedom From Religion Foundation, The Satanic Temple is not mounting direct legal challenges to practices they are offended by.  Rather, they are testing the freedoms that communities profess to hold so dear by simply choosing to enjoy them.  More often than not, as shown by Phoenix City Council and Orange County Public Schools, opponents opt to dismantle their own liberties rather than extend them to all.

    “It exposed hypocrisy,” Ms. Shortt said of the events in Phoenix.  “They decided to take their ball and go home because they didn’t like another one of the players that joined the game.  They’re always talking about religious freedom, how everybody has the right to practice religious freedom.  They can’t have their cake and eat it too.”

Going Forward

    The Satanic Temple has now been approved to deliver the invocation at city council meetings in both Tucson and Scottsdale.  (The dates for those meetings has not yet been set.)  It is likely that the events in Phoenix will put officials in those cities on alert.  Will they attempt to hastily change their own processes to prevent religious expression, as was the case in Phoenix?  Will they decide to honor the constitutional principles lauded by their founders?

    The Satanic Temple has now released the invocation that would have been delivered at Phoenix City Council, and you may soon hear it in an Arizona city near you:

    "Let us stand now, unbowed and unfettered by arcane doctrines born of fearful minds in darkened times.  Let us embrace the Luciferian impulse to eat of the Tree of Knowledge and dissipate our blissful and comforting delusions of old.  Let us demand that individuals be judged for their concrete actions, not their fealty to arbitrary social norms and illusory categorizations.  Let us reason our solutions with agnosticism in all things, holding fast only to that which is demonstrably true.  Let us stand firm against any and all arbitrary authority that threatens the personal sovereignty of One or All.  That which will not bend must break, and that which can be destroyed by truth should never be spared its demise.  It is Done.  Hail Satan.”