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Iowa Satanic Temple display not protected by First Amendment, Catholic legal expert says

December 14, 2023 Catholic News Agency 0
The Baphomet statue from the ‘conversion room’ at the Satanic Temple in Salem, Massachusetts, Oct. 8, 2019. / Credit: JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Dec 14, 2023 / 18:15 pm (CNA).

The Satanic Temple display in the Iowa state capitol building is not protected by the First Amendment, a Catholic legal expert told CNA. 

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer, a legal analyst for EWTN, told CNA that the display installed at the request of a prominent atheist group is not religious expression but rather about making a mockery of religion. 

The temporary statue, which portrays a larger-than-life-size goat-headed figure cloaked in red and black and surrounded by candles, was erected at the request of Iowa’s Satanic Temple (TST) alongside several religious holiday displays. According to Forbes the Iowa state capitol holiday display this year also includes a Christmas tree, a Nativity scene, and a holiday banner by another atheist group. Local news station KCCI Des Moines reported that the display will remain in the capitol through Dec. 15.  

Since its unveiling, the TST display has inspired outrage as well as calls to prayer. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds called the display “absolutely objectionable” and encouraged “all those of faith” to join her in “praying over the Capitol and recognizing the Nativity scene that will be on display — the true reason for the season.”

On Thursday there were reports on social media that the TST exhibit had been vandalized but was still on display.

Others such as Iowa state Rep. Jon Dunwell, a Republican and a pastor, have said that the Satanic display is protected by the free exercise of worship and religion clause of the First Amendment.

Though he said he personally objects to the monument, Dunwell said: “I don’t want the state evaluating and making determinations about religions.”

Picciotti-Bayer, who is the director of the human and religious rights group the Conscience Project, said the First Amendment “absolutely” does “not protect this kind of offensive and irreligious display.”

She explained that because the group has publicly admitted that it is primarily composed of atheists and does not believe in the existence of Satan, the display does not constitute genuine religious expression. Instead, she said it is meant to make a mockery of religion and is part of a “concerted effort to undermine the fabric of American society.”

“We have to avoid the temptation to want to abandon our free speech principles and think that opposing The Satanic Temple can only be done with censorship. I don’t believe it has to. I think that our principles of religious freedom and free speech actually weigh on the side of excluding mockery from our public places,” she explained.

“The first principles that support these core freedoms like religious freedom and free speech did not embrace a farce like The Satanic Temple is trying to put on display. Nor does it protect irreligious mockery of these kinds of core and important celebrations,” she went on.

“The founders in particular, even those who weren’t particularly religious themselves, knew and spoke often about the importance of a religious people and that especially Christian virtues and ethics were key to a healthy citizenry.”

What is TST?  

TST is a national group of progressive atheists with chapters they call “congregations” across the United States.

On its website, TST states that it does not worship Satan, nor does it believe in the existence of the devil or any supernatural force or power. The group says on its website that it believes in “reason, empathy, [and] the pursuit of knowledge.” Its seven core tenets were also shown on the display in the Iowa capitol.

Undermining the fabric of American society

According to Picciotti-Bayer, the danger is that the TST founders have “set their sights on core places of the gathering of citizens.”

“They’re going after public schools, they’re going after our public facilities like our state capitols or even the U.S. Capitol, they’re trying to do that thinking that they can use the rich principles protecting religious freedom and free speech to kind of warrant what they’re trying to do,” she went on. “Sadly, they’ve got some funding to do that. So clearly, this is not just an annoying small group, but it’s a concerted effort to try to undermine the fabric of American society [by] manipulating our principles and the rule of law.”

Picciotti-Bayer said that TST has also become a growing threat to American society through its promotion of abortion as a “religious right” and its increasing presence in public schools.

She said that it’s important that government officials “draw the line” and that “if they’re going to make facilities open for public displays, that they are very clear that it needs to be for the good of the community and not for mocking what people hold dear, which is their religious beliefs.”

“To allow public displays from different community groups to celebrate the richness of our diversity does not mean that it opens the door for those places to be basically made fun of.”

In the case of the satanic monument at the Iowa state capitol, Picciotti-Bayer said she was “very heartened” that Gov. Reynolds “not only objected to it but asked for prayers.”

“Even though the leaders and the founders of The Satanic Temple disavow Satanism, the minute you let Satan in, we all know all sorts of havoc ensues,” she said.

Despite the danger, Picciotti-Bayer said that concerned citizens can take action to push back.

“We need to support our elected officials to stand up to these kinds of manipulations,” she said, adding that “it’s important that officials feel emboldened by their voters and they feel like they have the backup to stand up to this kind of nonsense.”

“The other thing is, I do think we can’t diminish the importance of prayer,” she went on. “Even though the founders of The Satanic Temple claim not to really be Satanists … it’s something that we need to use our most powerful weapon, which is prayer, to fight against.”

TST did not reply to CNA’s request for comment by the time of publication.