In 2010 Oklahoma state legislators passed the “Oklahoma Ten Commandments Monument Statue Act,” mandating the design and construction of a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the state capital. The act specified that the monument does not amount to the state’s endorsement of any religion. Rather, it honors America’s Judeo-Christian heritage and will be placed on the capital grounds alongside other monuments. The act also requires the state attorney general to defend the monument against any challenges to its constitutionality.
Now a group called The Satanic Temple has offered to contribute to the monuments at Oklahoma’s capital with “an homage to the historic/literary Satan.” It is hard to deny that belief in Satan is just as important a part of America’s religious heritage—and probably more so—than the Ten Commandments. The Christian magazine Relevant has already called the legislation, introduced in 2009, a “backfire” that invited Satan into the capitol. But will this Satanic stunt actually change anything?
In some states, atheists have successfully erected monuments and holiday displays alongside Ten Commandments monuments and government supported Christmas displays. But while atheists can claim a sincere desire to promote reason and irreligion, The Satanic Temple is a bit different. Founder Lucien Greaves seeks to continue Anton LaVey’s work of challenging Christian hegemony through theatricality and pranks. The goal of announcing a Satanic monument is not to promote Satanism but to demonstrate why government endorsements of religion are undesirable.
Greaves is not the first to challenge the perceived erosion of the separation of church and state by demanding that absurd or deviant religions receive the same privileges as Christianity. In 1966, Arthur Kleps founded the Neo-American Church, which claimed Puff the Magic Dragon as a hymn and demanded a religious right to use LSD. In congressional hearings, Kleps explained that his Church was intended to demonstrate that all religions are invented and silly. In 2005, the religion of Pastafarianism was created to challenge language concerning “Intelligent Design” in the Kansas science curriculum.
While this tactic of prank-as-protest is clever, these invented religions never win their day in court. The Supreme Court case Pleasant Grove City v. Summum (2009), in which a new religious movement called Summum sought to erect a monument listing the “seven aphorisms” of their religion in a park in Pleasant Grove City, Utah, virtually guarantees that Oklahoma will not have to erect a monument to Satan.
Like the Oklahoma capital grounds, the park featured a number of monuments including a privately donated Ten Commandments monument. When the city vetoed Summum’s monument, the church’s lawyers argued that allowing one monument but not the other violated their freedom of speech. However, in a unanimous decision the court ruled that this was not a free speech issue because when the government accepts a monument as a donation, the monument becomes the speech of the government and not the individual donor. As Samuel Alito explained, when the United States accepted the Statue of Liberty from France, this did not obligate the government to also accept a “Statue of Autocracy” from the German Empire or Imperial Russia.
Of course, such a ruling does not mean that Oklahoma’s Ten Commandments monument is constitutional. Despite the stated secular purpose of celebrating Judeo-Christian heritage, it seems fairly obvious that the real intention of the monument is to mark Oklahoma as a Christian state. However, the question of whether such monuments violate the establishment clause is sticky. In 2005, the Supreme Court famously decided two such cases—Van Orden v. Perry in Texas and McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky—on the same day.
In two 5-4 decisions the Kentucky display was struck down and the Texas monument permitted. Stephen Breyer, the “swing vote” in both cases, felt that the Texas monument was acceptable because it had already been standing for forty years without controversy, unlike the Kentucky display. Its history, along with its location beside other monuments around the state capitol, showed that the religious content was part of a “broader moral and historical message.” Breyer’s legal distinction about context was not lost on the framers of the 2009 Oklahoma bill.
What is troubling about the Van Orden v. Perry ruling is that sincere but new religions like Summum cannot claim to be part of America’s broader historical context and therefore cannot enjoy the same flexibility regarding the establishment clause as Christianity. And despite Greaves’ tactical reference to Satan as a historic and literary figure, many legislators and judges feel that religious groups like the Temple of Satan should not have the same privileges as Christians.
Oklahoma Republican Bobby Cleveland dismissed the legal challenge posed by Greaves, stating simply that Satanists belong in “the nut category.” This dismissal echoes the dissenting opinion of Antonin Scalia in the McCreary County case, where he remarked, “With respect to public acknowledgment of religious belief, it is entirely clear from our Nation’s historical practices that the Establishment Clause permits this disregard of polytheists and believers in unconcerned deities, just as it permits the disregard of devout atheists.”
So is the proposal for a Satanic monument just a waste of time? While the Satanic monument does not appear to constitute a “legal backfire” as Relevant suggests, it does serve to raise the level of discussion regarding pluralism, freedom of religion, and the establishment clause (I’m talking about it in RD, after all). It also sheds light on the very real privileges that Christianity is afforded from our nominally secular government.