What the Hail: Satanists Got Busy in 2018

From defending reproductive rights to run-ins with several TV shows, the Satanist community had a busy 2018. The only question going forward: Will internal tension sink the movement?

Baphomet, the statue commissioned by The Satanic Temple, was at the heart of the "Sabrina" controversy.

One might legitimately ask: “Why, of all things, a piece devoted to Satanists?” Good question. First off, while the year in religion didn’t go too well, as Daniel Schultz points out in his wrap-up, it was the Satanists who managed to give us a couple of the brighter spots. Second, despite the temptation to assume that Satanism is essentially a sophisticated group of pranksters with a flair for the dramatic–”part of an incredibly elaborate mockumentary,” as one Arkansas official put it–the fact is, large-scale defections and dissent notwithstanding, Satanism is largely comprised of communities of sincere believers, many of whom also share a commitment to social justice. And third, if Netflix can mainstream Satanism why the hell can’t RD? So, without further delay, your year in Satanism. – The editors

January: A lawsuit The Satanic Temple (TST) had filed in 2015 finally reached the Missouri Supreme Court. A Satanist named “Mary Doe” needed an abortion and claimed Missouri’s restrictions for receiving one–which included reading a pamphlet stating that life begins at conception, viewing an ultrasound of the fetus, and a 72-hour-waiting period–violated her sincerely held religious beliefs. Doe’s attorney, James MacNaughton, argued these laws impose religious views on women seeking a medical procedure.

He explained, “They want to change her mind, they want to change her heart, they want to change the way she sees herself in the cosmos.” The state’s solicitor general countered that Mary’s religious rights had not been burdened because Missouri law did not actually require her to read the brochure or even view an ultrasound, only that these be made available. This interpretation of the law had never been made explicit to Planned Parenthood. TST regarded the solicitor general’s clarification as a victory in itself. In a press release, TST spokesperson Jex Blackmore was quoted, “Women will no longer be forced to decide whether or not they want to listen to the fetal heartbeat while naked, with their feet in stirrups, and a transvaginal ultrasound wand inside of them.”

Actor Corey Feldman retweeted a woman who urged people to burn down TST’s headquarters in Salem, Massachusetts. Her tweet urged arsonists to attack a building where people live because she didn’t like their religion. But when TST spokesman Lucien Greaves urged his Twitter followers to report this post as abusive, Twitter inexplicably suspended Greaves’ account. Greaves announced he would sue Twitter for religious discrimination, setting a chain of events in motion that would have larger repercussions throughout the year.

TST-Arizona announced they would be adopting a stretch of highway. (TST first planned to adopt a highway in 2013)

February: TST-Arizona filed suit against the city of Scottsdale. In 2016, Scottsdale had scheduled TST to give a prayer invocation before a city council meeting. But when residents complained, the city introduced a new law that only groups with a “substantial connection” to Scottsdale may give invocations. TST’s invocation was abruptly cancelled and their slot was given a student pastor from a local Baptist church.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, TST obtained email communications from Scottsdale City Council members that they claim demonstrate prejudice toward their religion, including an email from Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield in which she called allowing Satanists give an invocation “taking equality too far.” TST also noted that in his 2016 re-election campaign, Scottsdale mayor Jim Lane issued campaign flyers that listed among his five accomplishments, “Stopped so-called ‘Satanists’ from mocking City Hall traditions with a ‘prayer.’” TST demanded the city pay their court costs and sought an injunction ensuring prayer invocations are either halted or open to all religions.

In Missouri, TST filed a new federal lawsuit on behalf of a pregnant woman named “Judy Doe.” Their federal case on behalf of Mary Doe (which was separate from their state case) had been thrown out in 2016 on a technicality because Mary was no longer pregnant by the time the judge made his ruling. TST’s strategy was to get Judy’s case before the judge while she was still pregnant in order to force a federal court to rule on TST’s religious freedom claim.

In Detroit, Jex Blackmore performed her “Subversive Autonomous Ritual,” which featured nude performers and hog heads on spikes. The violent imagery was meant to shock the audience into questioning authoritarian power structures. The ritual also signaled Blackmore’s departure from TST to pursue her own Satanic political projects.

March: Seven TST chapters converged on Chicago to protest the annual meeting of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD). Grey Faction is a project within TST that counters therapists who promote conspiracy theories about Satanic ritual abuse. Grey Faction has been protesting ISSTD conferences for several years. Hosting visiting protesters was a coup for TST’s Chicago chapter, which only gained official status in February.

April: TST announced their intent to sue the state of Arkansas. The legislature, in an effort led by Sen. Stanley Rapert, installed a Ten Commandments monument on their capitol in 2015. After TST began meeting with the capitol arts and grounds committee to discuss a location for their statue of Baphomet, the legislature passed emergency legislation blocking these discussions. Greaves claimed this was a violation of the establishment clause and called Rapert, “a mindless tool for theocratic interests originating outside of Arkansas.”

Satanic San Francisco (now Satanic Bay Area)–a group allied with, but separate from, TST–mailed “acceptance letters” to the members of congress who accept the most money from the NRA. The letters were signed by the “Demon of Admissions.” They congratulated the representatives on their misdeeds and granted them admission to the ninth circle of hell.

At Central Michigan University, a journalism professor hosted a debate between Jex Blackmore and representatives of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church.

May: TST filed a formal complaint against Twitter with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. TST accepted an offer from First Amendment attorney Marc Randazza to represent them pro bono. Randazza has represented a number of far-right figures including Alex Jones, Mike Cernovich, and Andrew Anglin. 

TST-Santa Cruz announced their adoption of a local beach. Locals described being “shocked” that Satanists would clean up a beach but were not averse to the idea.

Menstruatin’ with Satan art by Tina Scott. http://christina-scott.com

TST-Arizona had a falling out with the local branch of the YWCA over their “Menstruatin’ with Satan” drive. The chapter had gathered so many feminine hygiene products for the local YWCA that the chapter also had to construct a shed in which these products could be stored. But a local manager announced that Christians had complained about working with Satanists and that the partnership must be dissolved. Later, the YWCA claimed this had been a miscommunication. There were no hard feelings from the chapter, but by then, they had already found another partner for their campaign in “Go with the Flow.”

TST-UK collaborated with artist Darren Cullen to subvert a new law in Bavaria requiring all public buildings to be adorned with a cross (in response to an influx of Muslim immigrants.) They mailed out crucifixes with hangers on the bottom so that they could only be hung upside down.

June: Greaves published an essay defending his views on free speech. The essay signaled an emerging fault line within TST over how the group should respond to the alt-right movement.

July: TST announced a plan to put their monument of Baphomet on a flatbed truck and drive it to the Arkansas capitol as part of an interfaith rally for religious freedom. Arkansas Solicitor General Nicholas Bronni attempted to block a motion by TST to merge their suit with an existing one regarding Arkansas’ Ten Commandments monument. Bronni claimed TST is “beneath the dignity of this court” and suggested their entire lawsuit might actually be part of an incredibly elaborate mockumentary.

August: August was arguably the most eventful month in TST’s history. TST-UK left to form its own organization called Satanic Temple International. The UK chapter felt the National Council and Executive MinistryTST’s governing bodieswere too slow in responding to their needs. TST leadership was concerned the UK chapter was starting campaigns without informing them. TST-Los Angeles left soon after, citing concerns about transparency within the organization, reservations about working with Marc Randazza, and a lack of leadership roles for minorities. The chapter formed its own group called The Satanic Collective. Although the chapters defected for different reasons, Jezebel ran a headline describing TST as “engulfed in a civil war.” Ahead of this story, Jex Blackmore published an essay explaining her reasons for leaving, while Greaves published his own essay responding to these claims.

Things continued to fragment. A few weeks later, TST-Portland left TST to become Satanic Portland. TST-Dallas dissolved and TST-New York lost most of its members. Some of the chapter leaders who left are planning a new network for Satanic activists where they may have more autonomy. One ex-member compared the situation to a band that changes its style until it finally breaks up. Those who stayed felt the organization now has a clearer political mission. All agreed August was a painful month. One member posted on Facebook, “It feels like my family is splitting apart.”

While the schisms were unfolding, TST proceeded with their rally in Arkansas. (RD reported on this here, here, and here.)

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit rejected an appeal in the reproductive rights case of Mary Doe, concurring that Doe lacked standing because she was no longer pregnant.

David Suhor, one of the founding members of the TST-West Florida chapter, was arrested for praying before the start of the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority board meeting. This was the culmination of long struggle in which the publically owned utilities company used increasingly complicated maneuvers to hold Christian prayers before meetings and Suhor continued his attempts to foil them.

September: TST-Indiana successfully adopted a highway. The chapter generally felt they were treated fairly in their adoption request, although some residents expressed resentment.

October: Netflix aired the new Warner Bros. series the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which used an unlicensed facsimile of TST’s copyrighted Baphomet statue. TST was especially offended that their art was presented as the idol of an evil, cannibalistic cult. They demanded an explanation and threatened legal action.

Meanwhile FX’s American Horror Story featured a storyline in which Anton LaVey–who founded the Church of Satan (CoS) in 1966–had faked his own death and was conducting human sacrifices to aid the Antichrist. CoS was rightly offended as their founder rejected all criminal activity and did not believe in Christs or antichrists. On Twitter, CoS traded barbs with American Horror Story actress Kathy Bates.

CoS and TST have become bitter rivals. Unfortunately, their shared experience of being exploited by derivative horror shows did little to reconcile them.

November: TST sued Netflix and Warner Bros. for $150 million in damages. The story was catnip to the media with news sites covering sci-fi, celebrity gossip, and corporate stocks all chiming in. On Twitter many accused TST of “selling out” by defending their copyright. Others claimed TST had no case since the image of Baphomet can be traced to an 1856 illustration by occultist Eliphas Levi. But attorneys for Netflix and Warner Bros. didn’t see it that way and decided to settle with TST out of court. Greaves seemed depressed that a copyright case with a silly television show generated so much more press than August’s rally for the First Amendment.

December: The holidays saw the return of Satanic holiday displays in public forums. Satanic Bay Area decorated a Christmas tree in Cesar Chavez Park with Satanic ornaments so neat that everyone kept stealing them. TST-Chicago built an impressive display for the Illinois capitol, inspiring state Sen. Paul Schimpf to demand its removal. West Michigan Friends of TST are planning an installation at Michigan’s capitol, where TST-Detroit had its “Snaketivity” display for three years running. Partisans of the War on Christmas are suitably horrified.

A courthouse in Adams County, Nebraska, put up a sign reading “In God We Trust.” In response, a local atheist group proposed a banner with Anton LaVey’s “Eleven Rules of the Earth.” TST blogger Jack Matirko opined that atheists should not appropriate texts from the Church of Satan, demonstrating some courtesy toward a rival Satanic organization.

And if you still want to hear more about Satanists, Hail Satan?, a documentary about TST directed by documentarian Penny Lane, will premiere next month at the Sundance Film Festival.