Will the US Naval Academy Grant The Satanic Temple Equal Rites?

Members of the Navy Midshipmen march onto the field before the start of the Navy and Air Force Falcons game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on October 05, 2019 in Annapolis, Maryland. Image credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images

On October 8, 2019 a group of midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) who participate in The Satanic Temple (TST) sent an internal email, posted to the Instagram account @drunkoldgrad, notifying fellow midshipmen that “Starting this Thursday, Satanic Services will be offered on the yard.”

Since they sent the email without first securing approval from Navy brass, the USNA was quick to respond. In their estimation, while the USNA planned to approve a study group, they did not approve any “Satanic Services.” The Military Times noted that the members of TST “were just asking for a study group space, not for a sacrifice stage or to burn a pentagram into Ingram Field or to erect a giant horned icon in front of the Zimmerman Bandstand.”

Regardless, on what basis would they deny TST members their right to perform their religion’s rites? After all, the U.S. Navy permitted a Heathen religious service rooted in Norse paganism to be carried out aboard an aircraft carrier. And the U.S. Navy’s Faith and Belief Codes list other religions that are either polytheistic or non-theistic. The website Task & Purpose aptly summarized the issue: “The [USNA] has a message for the burgeoning satanists in its ranks: you can study Satan as a midshipman, but you sure as hell can’t hail him.”

The reasoning behind denying TST their rites appears to be political. According to the USNA, TST cannot hold services because they are “a non-theistic religious and politically active movement.” This argument appears to ignore the politicking that transpires on Navy grounds by Catholics, evangelicals, LDS-affiliated Mormons, and other religious groups who have a long history of co-mingling politics and faith on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and erecting Christian monuments on public property.

According to longtime RD contributor Joseph Laycock, the fact that TST is non-theistic is totally irrelevant:

The Supreme Court has ruled in cases such as United States v. Seeger (1965) that a worldview does not have to include God to classify as a religion. The fact that the Naval Academy deems it significant that TST is non-theistic implies that they are operating on an unstated assumption [that] only religions that believe in God are “real religions” or entitled to equal treatment under the law.

Laycock dates the connection between satanists and the Navy to 1967 when Anton LaVey held, with a full Navy color guard in attendance, what was probably the first ever Satanic funeral in San Francisco for a sailor who had joined the Church of Satan. Granted, TST wasn’t founded until 2013, and they’ve posted the differences between the two satanic groups on their website, but it does, nevertheless, point to an instance where the U.S. Navy chose to honor a deceased solider even though they were a practicing satanist.

In conducting research for his forthcoming book, Speak of the Devil: How the Satanic Temple is Changing the Way We Talk About Religion (Oxford, January 2020), Laycock interviewed several TST members who were active military. “Nearly all of them had a story about being harassed by a commanding officer who was essentially using his position to proselytize to subordinates. In his estimation, “These TST members in the armed forces are willing to risk damage to their careers because of their religious convictions. These are not just ‘trolls’ out to amuse themselves.”

In Laycock’s estimation, TST’s primary issue is the separation of church and state.

They are opposed to any one religion using the power of the state to claim a monopoly on the public square. This is why they assert themselves into open forums established to erect religious displays on public property, and propose Satanic monuments to accompany Christian ones at state capitols. Beyond this, they believe the human body is “inviolable” and they invoke the free exercise clause in cases where they feel human bodies are being controlled by the state: Namely, state laws that restrict women’s access to abortion, and the use of corporal punishment in public schools. TST does not endorse political candidates or parties.

For those who think TST perform pranks similar to the Pastafarians, the U.S government officially recognized TST as a religion in 2019, while the Pastafarians have yet to receive such a distinction.

Second, as Laycock points out, “Pastafarians seek to make religious accommodations untenable so that no one can have them.” For example, they don colanders on their heads when taking their drivers license photos because they are bothered that Muslim women and Sikh men get a special exception to a ‘no head covering’ rule. Conversely, TST advocates that religious accommodations can be good but only if they are enjoyed by everyone–not just the dominant religion.”

Finally, Laycock is not aware of any Pastafarians receiving death threats, having their families “doxxed” by Neo-Nazis, or otherwise demonstrating a willingness to take tremendous risks for their beliefs. “TST leaders have experienced these things and accept them as the price of speaking out for their beliefs.” It remains to be seen whether this will ultimately be another opportunity for TST leaders to take another risk.