Satanic Temple’s IRS Recognition Rekindles Fierce Debate Over What Is ‘Really Real’ Church

Last week, The Satanic Temple (TST) revealed that they have received recognition as a church from the IRS, complete with tax-exempt status.

There were mixed reactions. LifeSiteNews, an anti-choice news site that has long opposed TST, responded immediately with an online petition demanding that the IRS reverse this “horrible decision” that “runs counter to everything America stands for.”

Amber Saurus Rex of TST’s National Council wrote, “On days like today, when we learn we’ve been officially recognized as a church by the U.S. government, all the work is worth it, and the voices that have tried so hard to stop our progress, to drown us out and even to harm us, seem very far away.”

Within the larger Satanic community, there were grumblings about TST’s press release, which described this as “a first in American history,” in addition to discussion of whether Satanists should want tax-exempt status and whether this signaled that TST has “sold out.” As it turns out, there’s a complicated history to the question of whether Satanists should pay their taxes and it has surprisingly little to do with money.

TST is not the first Satanic organization to receive tax-exempt status as a church. The Temple of Set (which some members have described as “post-Satanic”) obtained this status in 1976. So did the Lilith Grotto, which is associated with the Church of Satan, in 1980. The Ordo Sororitatis Satanicae, a group that was co-founded by a former TST member, received tax-exempt status in April of last year.

The Church of Satan (CoS)with which TST is often confusednever received federal tax-exempt status, despite being the first significant Satanic religion. CoS’s position is that they qualify for such status and could have it if they wanted it, but they believe all churches should be taxed and are making a principled stand against tax-exemption. This narrative has been challenged by Michael Aquino, who left CoS in 1975 to found the Temple of Set. In his voluminous book The Church of Satan, Aquino claims that CoS did apply for tax-exempt status and was repeatedly denied it. And so, rather than admit defeat, CoS founder Anton LaVey made a virtue out of necessity.

Regardless of whose version is closer to the truth, it didn’t help that in the 1970s a CoS member named Martin Lamers opened a Satanic “abbey” in Amsterdam’s red-light district where visitors paid to watch “Satanic nuns” perform sex acts. Lamers argued that his abbey was tax-exempt because the sex acts were religious services and the payments were donations. LaVey considered revoking Lamers’s charter over his claim to be tax-exempt. In 1987, after a decade of police raids and legal battles, the abbey was legally declared a sex club and not a religious institution and Lamers was made to pay ten million guilders in back taxes. This episode may have galvanized LaVey’s position on seeking tax exemption.

TST initially shared CoS’s position that all churches should be taxed, starting with Satanic churches. However, several factors caused TST to reassess this idea. In 2017 President Trump announced at a National Prayer Breakfast that he planned to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt organizations from endorsing political candidates. On May 4, 2017, Trump attempted to make good on this boast with the “Presidential Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” before the house passed legislation in 2018 making the Johnson Amendment procedurally more difficult to enforce. TST spokesperson Lucien Greaves described the need to be on the same footing as his theocratic opponents in what he called “a frighteningly asymmetrical battle.”

In an interview, Greaves described submitting samples of literature, rituals, and other paperwork to demonstrate that TST possesses characteristics that the IRS associates with a “church.” Robert Warren of The Catholic University of America argued the IRS made the wrong decision because TST does not believe in God or a literal Satan. But supernatural belief is nowhere among the characteristics listed by the IRS. Of the characteristics the IRS does list, TST meets nearly all of them. Even the attribute of “Sunday schools for the religious instruction of the young,” was arguably met by TST’s After School Satan Club. All the attention that TST has received in the media made it much easier to make its case to the IRS.

However, the ability to accept tax-deductible donations will not give TST the same financial resources as its conservative Christian opponents. In an interview, Greaves said he was still uncertain how tax-exempt status will affect the organization’s finances. The real reason to seek tax-exempt status is that this presents the best possible evidence that TST is a “real religion” rather than “trolls,” political satire, orin LifeSiteNews’s termsan “anti-religion.”

The late religious historian J.Z. Smith wrote that, “The Internal Revenue Service is, both de facto and de jure, America’s primary definer and classifier of religion. It reproduces the imperial Roman government’s efforts at distinguishing licit and illicit religions as subtypes of a wider legal concern for distinctions between licit and illicit associations.” Like Smith, Greaves mused that the IRS is probably not the best institution to evaluate religious sincerity, but was willing to work with the system that we have.

Proving sincerity has been a key issue in most of TST’s legal challenges. When TST sued the state of Arkansas in 2018, attorneys representing Secretary of State Mark Martin filed a response alleging that TST were “trolling pranksters” and “beneath the dignity of this Court.” They even speculated, “[I]t is entirely plausible that the proposed intervenors intend to use their involvement in the action before this Court as part of their mockumentary.” With the backing of the IRS, it will be much harder to cast doubts on TST’s sincerity, at least in a legal context. 

This shift from illicit to licit status is the reason TST’s opponents have already vowed to lobby the IRS to reverse the decision: Tax-exempt status signals that the government sees TST as a “really real” religion entitled to all the same rights as Christianity. While TST is not the first Satanic organization to obtain this status, it is the first group that clearly intends to deploy this status in legal challenges. TST’s demands for equal treatment under the law are going to be much harder to dismiss from here on out.