This past April 19th, the Northern York County School Board voted to prevent an “After School Satan Club,” operated by members of The Satanic Temple in the local community, from having access to public school facilities. While some concerned residents, unconvinced by The Satanic Temple’s claims to eschew proselytization in favor of a “critical thinking” curriculum, applauded the school board’s decision, few questioned the school board’s authority to put the issue to a vote, and nobody thought to discuss how the school board’s assumption of such power might impact Religious Liberty overall.
Some readers may believe that The Satanic Temple – an IRS tax exempt church that advocates for benign values such as “compassion” and “empathy” – hold to an erroneous religious perspective, but to what extent is it appropriate for government administrators to attempt to dictate “acceptable” religious viewpoints of those making requests for public facility usage?
On this point, the Supreme Court is clear: in a 2001 ruling (Good News Club v. Milford Central School, 2001) it was decreed that the Constitution prohibits the government from treating secular after-school clubs any differently than religious clubs. Among religious clubs, no government authority is allowed to restrict access to the “limited public forum” of school district facilities based upon viewpoint preference. After-school clubs operated by organizations outside of the school district are not sponsored or endorsed by the school district, and they are not part of the formal school district curriculum. The school district’s role, legally, in no way extends beyond the administrative role of assigning an available time and space for after-school club operations.
Under these standards of law, it is all but entirely certain that the school board’s vote against the After School Satan Clubs will be found to have been an unconstitutional abuse of the school board’s authority.
Should these standards of law be revisited? If so, how could they be revised in such a way as to not give arbitrary power to the government that compromises our most cherished, fundamental First Amendment freedoms of religion and expression?
On April 26th, state Sen. Mike Regan wrote an op-ed published by the York Daily Record decrying the After School Satan Clubs, which failed to address any of these questions, raised more concerns than it addressed, and demonstrated Regan’s alarming lack of understanding of the constitutional legal framework that defines his duties to the public.
Regan wrote, “Seeing as The Satanic Temple has said it plans to file a lawsuit against the school district, I am not here to interpret the law or constitution on this matter.” But, as a public official, Regan’s first priority should be to the “law or constitution,” which he flagrantly disregards in favor of inflammatory grandstanding.
Regan goes on to express doubts that the Satanists would remain true to their word and not seek to proselytize. The point is moot, however, as The Satanic Temple would be free to proselytize to children whose parents agree to send them to their club, if they so choose. In fact, many schools do host religious after-school clubs that explicitly seek to convert children to their particular religious viewpoint, and to train children to proselytize to other children. It was in response to those clubs that The Satanic Temple created After School Satan Clubs as an alternative.
In the school where local volunteers sought to establish an After School Satan Club, there already exists a “Joy El” Bible club that has been given permission to collect students during the school day so as to bus them to an off-site location to receive “religious instruction.”
When it comes to defending the Bible club, Sen. Regan’s complete ignorance of law gives way to an exact citation of policy: “Obviously, separation of church and state prevents a school from sponsoring or hosting [the Joy El club]. Students at Northern are attending a religious program led by individuals that are not school employees and that is off-site from school property … Pennsylvania law allows a parent to request their student to be released from school for religious instruction. This is provided for under Section 1546 of the Pennsylvania Public School Code […] Parents seeking an alternative to the existing program have just as much right to request their student be excused for religious instruction of their choice.”
Here, Regan suggests that if the After School Satan Clubs took place at an off-site location, during the school day, from which The Satanic Temple would collect students from school grounds and transport them away, he would not object. It is a bizarre concession for him to obligate himself to, as The Satanic Temple is fully capable of doing exactly that if necessary.
Sen. Regan’s op-ed fails to elaborate a principled position, or even a coherent understanding of the issue at all. In defending the Bible club, he unwittingly offers the very defense that justifies the Satanist’s club.
What does Sen. Regan’s stated determination to “not allow Satan in” mean from a public policy perspective? Does it mean that school boards should have authority over the Supreme Court? Does it mean Sen. Regan believes it within his duties as a public official to dictate legal parameters on the freedom of religious expression and identity of only some within his community?
A responsible op-ed would have addressed these questions. While some in the York County community are clearly upset that Satanists might be allowed to operate an after-school club (despite their freedom to disregard the club and not send their children to it) it is also clear that there are many who recognize that if The Satanic Temple presents some type of “evil,” there is a greater evil still in allowing the government to assume a position of egregious overreach, allowing them to act upon their personal preferences to the detriment of a minority viewpoint. If they can do it to Satanists, they can do it to any other religious group. We deserve public officials who understand their duty to the public, the value of our constitutional principles, and the limits of their authority.
Senator Regan demonstrates that he either fails to understand any of these things or, if he does, he chooses to ignore them.
Lucien Greaves is a co-founder of the Satanic Temple.