Friday, November 17, 2023

PA: District Loses Fight Against After School Satan Club

A little bit north of Bucks County and south of the Poconos lies Northampton County, in which lies the Saucon Valley School District, a district which just agreed to settle up with the Satanic Temple to the tune of $200,001.

I would say that it takes a dumb district to fall into this kind of mess, but on the other side of the state where I live local districts play with this kind of fire all the time

Forking over taxpayer dollars and the use of facilities to the After School Satan Club has always been a completely predictable outcome. Yet folks who desperately want to get religion back in school somehow keep thinking that "religion" means "only my religion."

Those folks kicked the door open over twenty years ago with Good News Club v. Milford Central School.

That suit made it all the way to the Supreme Court in 2001. The Good News Club is a program of the Child Evangelism Fellowship, a group founded in 1937 by Jesse Levin Overholtzer with the express purpose of evangelizing children. They claim 109,828 clubs worldwide. In the 90s, a couple decided to establish one of these after-school clubs in Milford, New York, but the school said no based on the stated intent to have "a fun time of singing songs, hearing a Bible lesson and memorizing scripture." Deeming the club religious instruction (which it totally was) the district said no, and many lower courts agreed. SCOTUS, however, did not. Justices Thomas, Rehnquist, O'Connor, Scalia and Kennedy were okey-doke with this (Breyer concurred in part).

And so US school have to provide use of the facilities to after school religious groups.

The Satanic Temple doesn't seem particularly interested in actual Satan worship. But they have adopted a fairly aggressive stance of "well, if you want to play that freedom of religion game, here we come." In their newest enterprise in Texas, they've been arguing hard that abortion is a religious practice of their sect and therefor must be allowed. They are raising money--no kidding-- to fund the Samuel Alito's Mom Satanic Abortion Clinic, which doers in fact help fund abortion services out of New Mexico. 

The after-school Satan Clubs have been launched in a variety of states and schools--specifically schools that opened their doors to The Good News Club. And that includes the Saucon Valley Middle School.

If you read the regular print, it doesn't seem all that scary:

The Satanic Temple is a non-theistic religion that views Satan as a literary figure representing a metaphorical construct of rejecting tyranny and championing the human mind and spirit. After School Satan Club does not attempt to convert children to any religious ideology. Instead, The Satanic Temple supports children thinking for themselves.

They emphasize a "scientific, rationalist, non-superstitious worldview," which I guess does seem at least a bit scary to some folks. But mostly it's that header-- Hey Kids! Let's Have Fun At After School Satan Club-- that really grabs attention. 

In February, the board correctly approved the ASSC request for facilities use. Then someone left a voicemail with the district threatening violence. Then the district canceled after-school activities and a day of school itself. Then the district decided to "review" the ASSC request. Then they denied it because the club had violated a policy against disrupted district activities, including creating a threat against staff and students and anxiety and fear, which of course they hadn't--it was the guy who left the voicemail that did that.

That was a dumb move for many reasons. As Hemant Mehta at The Friendly Atheist points out

The district inadvertently created a playbook for Christian terrorists to follow anytime there was an atheist or Satanic club meeting at a local school. Just call in a threat, mention the non-Christian group as your motivation, and watch the chaos unfold. It was a horrible precedent.

Meanwhile, the phone caller was caught-- it was some dude in North Carolina. The Satanic Temple sued the district, and the judge landed on their side, hard.
Here, although The Satanic Temple, Inc.'s objectors may challenge the sanctity of this controversially named organization, the sanctity of the First Amendment's protections must prevail. Indeed, it is the First Amendment that enumerates our freedoms to practice religion and express our viewpoints on religion and all the topics we consider sacred. Though "the First Amendment is often inconvenient" depending on one's perspective or responsibilities, this inconvenience "does not absolve the government of its obligation to tolerate speech (Int'l Soc'y for Krishna Consciousness v. Lee, 1992, Kennedy, J. concurring). "Even in the school setting, a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint is not enough to justify the suppression of speech." Child Evangelism Fellowship of N.J. v. Stafford Twp. Sch. Dist., 3d Cir, 2004)

Would have been nice if someone had thrown those ideas around every time a legislature passed a law against discussing critical race theory, race history stuff, and other divisive concepts.

Judge John M. Gallagher (who is, incidentally, a Trump appointee) cut through the various piddly shenanigans the district had employed to disqualify the After School Satan Club and ordered the district to honor their original resource use agreement and let the club have its on-school-grounds meetings.

That ruling was filed on May 1. 

Since then, a slate of school board candidates ran on a platform of "no more expensive over-dramatic baloney," citing the ASSC lawsuit as one glaring example of how the old majority wasted $1.6 million on unnecessary legal bills. Those Democratic candidates clobbered the incumbent conservatives.

That was last week. Yesterday, a final settlement in the case was announced. The district will not retaliate against any of the folks involved in the suit. The district shall not subject ASSC to any requirements not faced by other clubs (rules about distributing fliers, etc.). 

As for money, the district will pay The Satanic Temple $1 in nominal damages. Their insurance carrier will pay $200,000 to cover TST's legal costs. 

What's next. More After School Satan Clubs, most likely. And if Oklahoma successfully launches the first religious charter school, I expect The Satanic Temple will be right there to apply for a charter, too. 

And maybe, just maybe, somewhere in this country a person will think twice before demanding that religion be put back in schools. 

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