Friday, February 23

How ‘After School Satan Club’ Is Shaking Things Up

Earlier this week, a flier began circulating online about a new organization coming to Chimneyrock Elementary School in Cordova, Tenn., about 17 miles east of Memphis.

“Hey Kids!” it read against a backdrop of colored pencils. “Let’s Have Fun at After School Satan Club.”

The club was organized by The Satanic Temple, a group that has gained widespread media attention and infuriated conservative Christians in recent years by sponsoring similar student clubs in other school districts, filing challenges to state abortion limits in Indiana and Texas, and placing pentagrams and other symbols alongside Christmas displays in statehouses.

OK, so what’s really going on here?

The Satanic Temple was founded in 2013 by two men who call themselves Lucien Greaves and Malcolm Jarry, both pseudonyms.

Based in Salem, Mass., famous as the home of the 17th-century witch trials, it calls itself a nontheistic religion and engages in activism to defend pluralism, secularism and religious rights, according to its website.

Mr. Greaves, whose name is Doug Mesner, said that the temple does not believe in Satan as described in the Bible but considers the concept to be a “mythological framework” that encourages people to question authority and follow “the best available evidence.”

“Satan,” Mr. Greaves said, “is the embodiment of the ultimate rebel against tyranny.”

The temple is open about challenging what Mr. Greaves calls “our theocratic overlords.”

To that end, it displayed a statue in the Iowa State Capitol this month that featured a mirrored ram’s head symbolizing the occult figure Baphomet. Next to it was a sign that read, “This display is not owned, maintained, promoted, supported by or associated with the State of Iowa.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, called the display “absolutely objectionable,” encouraged Iowans to pray and reassured them that a Nativity scene — “the true reason for the season” — would also be displayed.

During an appearance on the campaign trail in Iowa on Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida blamed his Republican rival, Donald J. Trump, for giving the temple a “legal leg to stand on” because the Internal Revenue Service granted it tax-exempt status as a religious organization in 2019, when Mr. Trump was president.

“My view would be that that’s not a religion that the founding fathers were trying create,” Mr. DeSantis said on CNN.

In fact, the First Amendment to the Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and goes on to guarantee freedom of speech and the press. Courts have ruled that religious groups may pay to use government buildings, and holiday decorations have been allowed in public places.

That doesn’t mean everyone appreciates The Satanic Temple’s idea of a holiday decoration. On Thursday, someone knocked the ram’s head off the statue in the Iowa Capitol. The Iowa State Patrol said that Michael Cassidy, 35, of Lauderdale, Miss., had been charged with criminal mischief in the matter.

A conservative website called The Republic Sentinel began raising money for his defense, and quoted a statement from Mr. Cassidy that he had beheaded the statue to “awaken Christians to the anti-Christian acts promoted by our government.”

The temple justifies its actions on First Amendment grounds. Speaking to The New York Times before the statue was destroyed, Mr. Greaves said the temple was not exploiting some “unfortunate loophole in the Constitution,” by placing a statue of Baphomet in the Capitol.

“This is what religious liberty is,” he said. “This is what free expression looks like. It doesn’t have to be painful if we understand its value. We should look at this with some pride.”

The temple says it started the clubs in 2016 to provide an alternative to other after-school religious clubs, particularly the Good News Club, a Christian missionary program. Students play puzzles and games and do science projects, nature activities and community service projects.

The temple says there are four active After School Satan clubs in the country — in California, Ohio, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, where the temple recently reached a $200,000 settlement with the Saucon Valley School District. The temple had accused the district of blocking it from using a middle school where the Good News Club also met.

The Supreme Court, in a 2001 case pitting the Good News Club against a school district in New York State, ruled that public schools must open their doors to after-school religious activities on the same basis as any other after-hours activity that school policy permits.

This ruling also opened the door, metaphorically, to Satan.

The Satanic Temple says it starts clubs only in places where parents have requested one. It claims that the parents of 13 children at Chimneyrock Elementary had signed permission slips for the first After School Satan Club meeting there on Jan. 10. The Times was unable to find a parent who signed a slip who was willing to be identified on the record.

The club was allowed to rent space from the school, which has students from prekindergarten to fifth grade. In an email to parents, school officials said the club “has the same legal rights to use our facilities after school hours as any other nonprofit organization.”

The interim superintendent of the Memphis-Shelby County Schools, Toni Williams, said at a news conference with Christian pastors on Wednesday that she was “duty bound to uphold board policies, state laws and the Constitution.”

“But let’s not be fooled,” she said. “Let’s not be fooled by what we have seen in the past 24 hours, which is an agenda initiated to ensure we cancel all faith-based organizations that partner with our school district.”

Althea E. Greene, the chairwoman of the Shelby County Board of Education, encouraged people to pray and “be vocal.” She describes herself as a bishop and pastor of Real Life Ministries.

“Satan has no room in this district,” she said.

A local pastor, William A. Adkins Jr., said it was critical not to allow “any entity called ‘Satanic Temple’ to have time — private time — with our children.” But he acknowledged that he was not sure how to bar the group without violating the Constitution.

“This is in fact what I call Satan personified,” he said. “They put us in a trick bag, and we almost can’t get out of it, using the Constitution against us.”

Susan C. Beachy contributed research.