Satanic Victory

12.07.14 11:45 AM ET

In Florida, ’Tis The Season for Satan

The Satanic Temple won a battle to put a display in the Florida state capitol, but the religious right is fighting a bigger war.

Thanks to the right-wing “religious liberty” movement, you’ll be seeing a lot more of Satan this season.

As reported in Slate this week, the Satanic Temple will be installing its holiday display in the Florida Capitol rotunda this month. Why? Well, because conservatives often get more than they bargain for.

Religious displays on public property used to be a big deal. As recently as the 1990s, along with prayers in school they were one of the rallying cries of the religious right as they bemoaned the secularization of America. Such displays sit at a knotty juncture of two clauses of the First Amendment: the “free exercise clause,” which forbids the government from interfering with a person’s exercise of religion, and the “establishment clause,” which forbids the government from—here it gets controversial—setting up a state church, taking sides among religions, or preferring one religion or another.

On the one hand, if there’s a big cross on the steps of the state capitol, it can seem like the government is taking sides—or, in now-contested constitutional terms, endorsing a particular religion. Thus, in some places, all such displays were banned. In others, courts split legal hairs: in front of the court yes, in the rotunda no; Santa yes, Jesus no; and so on.

On the other hand, right-wing activists have lately said, banning displays interferes with the exercise of religion. Sure, the government can’t produce these displays—but shouldn’t God-fearing citizens have the opportunity to do so? Why, of course they should!

This suited state governments (especially conservative-led ones) just fine. The church groups make the displays, and the big solstice, I mean, Christmas, tree can be lit after all.

Unfortunately, you can’t have one clause without the other. If the government is going to let some groups exercise their religion by placing displays on public property, they’ve got to let all groups do so.

So, in the last few years, we’ve seen a flurry not just of Chanukah, Diwali, and Kwanzaa displays, but also ones of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and Festivus poles.

Last year, though, Florida’s Department of Management Services (wasn’t that in Brazil?) drew a line in the sand. Spaghetti monster, sure, but not Satan. Especially not when the display in question includes an angel falling from the sky in flames, surrounded by Biblical verses.

By the way, that display was actually a clever legal move. Courts have long found that bogus religions do not create first amendment rights—I can’t say I practice Jayism and insist that the state pay me a million dollars, as my “religion” commands. By using explicit Biblical imagery and Biblical texts, the Satanic Temple—actually one of many Satanic religious organizations (what, you thought Satanists would get along with one another?) playing this game—made it harder to claim the display wasn’t really religious.

Never mind that, said the DMS in 2013. The display was “offensive.” Enter Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which threatened to sue. And, lo! Florida changed its tune. They’ve kept the prohibition on “offensive” displays, which is probably unconstitutional, but have decided that, for now, the Satanic Temple’s isn’t one.

So, the display—which has the aesthetic sophistication of a middle school science project—will go up for week. It’s not quite a reversal of Hobby Lobby, but I guess it’s something.

One wonders, though, how far this might go. The National Prayer Breakfast, sponsored by the highly shady Christian power network known as the Family, is usually pretty ecumenical. By which I mean, there are some Jews and the occasional Hindu or Muslim. But how ecumenical do we need to be? Should there be a Pastafarian blessing at the breakfast? Maybe even a portion of sacred spaghetti?

But let’s go even further. One of the pernicious aspects of the Hobby Lobby decision is that courts are not to inquire as to whether a religious belief is sincere, reasonable, or even logically coherent. Given that holding, I’m not sure that the Satanic Temple couldn’t ask for more audacious displays, more recognition of their sincerely felt religious beliefs, and, indeed, religious exemptions from laws they don’t like.

The sky is not the limit; beliefs still must be sincere and connected to some for-real source. But Hobby Lobby did raise the bar. Shouldn’t Satanists, given their sincerely held beliefs in “empathy, personal autonomy and empirical reasoning,”, be able to discriminate against Catholics who believe that a blastocyst has a soul? At the very least, they shouldn’t have to pay for their pregnancy-related expenses. After all, doing so would make them complicit in irrationality, which is against their religion.

Of course, that won’t happen. The Satanic Temple wins these fights because they are small fights. They make atheists feel good, and even conservatives can more or less go along with them, since it’s a “free country” after all. Fine, put your Spaghetti Monster next to my Jesus-Fish bumper sticker. The Religious Right has bigger fish to fry.