We all agree on the simple, observable facts about the world. But when you go beyond those physical things into what can’t be observed, you get into the realm of belief and, for many, religion.
For some people, their faith — or lack thereof — is the most important thing in their lives. And one good thing about America is that the government protects an individual’s right to express whatever religious beliefs they may have. But according to some, there are times when that governmental protection favors some religions over others…
The framework of the United States government and all of its laws is the U.S. Constitution. The document lays out the separation and balance of the different branches of government, the relationship between the federal and state governments, and perhaps most importantly, the specific protections of individual liberty known as the Bill of Rights.
Of the rights laid out in the Constitution, the one the framers believed important enough to place before all others was freedom of speech. In addition to giving people the right to speak as they wish and to assemble as they choose, it also separates church and state.
Separation oif Church and State
To quote Thomas Jefferson, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence the act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’, thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” In his view, “religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god.”
But in the years since the founding of the nation, there are some who would claim that the line separating church and state has blurred at times. Debates have been fought in the past over things like religious instruction in the ‘40s or the addition of “In God We Trust” to U.S. currency in the ‘50s.
The most recent debate surrounding the separation of church and state has centered on the placement of a monument of the Ten Commandments on the Capitol grounds in Arkansas. While Jews and Christians might be pleased to see such a monument go up in their city, it’s pretty easy to see what the constitutional argument against it would be.
Opponents of religious monuments on government property claim that by choosing a symbol from one particular faith, the government is effectively endorsing that religion over others, violating the separation of church and state.
Normally, when a person or organization has a complaint about this kind of government activity, they file a suit and the courts decide exactly how the Constitution and legal precedent apply to the particular situation. But this time, one shocking organization decided on a very unusual form of protest.
That organization was the Satanic Temple, whose very name comes loaded with connotations of wickedness. But rather than being some cult of devil-worshipers, the group describes itself as a political free-speech activist group and a “non-theistic religion.”
That means rather than believing in a god — or devil — they see the figure held as the ultimate evil being in Christianity as a symbol. “The Satan of Modern Satanism is a metaphorical icon for Enlightenment values,” said the Temple’s co-founder, Lucien Greaves.
“I identify nontheistically with a Miltonic Satan that defies all subjugation, exalts scientific inquiry and promotes Humanistic, pluralistic values,” he continued, referring to John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. And in line with those pluralistic values, the protest his organization staged in response to the Ten Commandments monument wasn’t a call to have it removed.
All or Nothing
Instead, the Satanic Temple simply didn’t want the state of Arkansas to favor one religion over another. They wanted their symbol side-by-side with the Ten Commandments monument. “If you’re going to have one religious monument up then it should be open to others,” said Ivy Forrester, co-founder of the Arkansas chapter of the Satanic Temple. “If you don’t agree with that then let’s just not have any at all.”
And the monument that the temple chose couldn’t have been more inflammatory or more loaded with historical context. They arrived at the Arkansas Capitol grounds with a flatbed carrying a nearly eight foot tall bronze statue of the winged, goat-headed deity Baphomet, the god the Catholic church had (falsely) accused the Knights Templar of worshiping in the 12th century.
More than 100 Satanists, atheists, and even some Christians headed to Little Rock for the unveiling of the statue, which took place in August of 2018. They cheered at the unveiling as Lucien Greaves spoke from a lectern saying: “Good people of Arkansas and supporters of religious liberty, I present to you Baphomet: symbol of pluralism, legal equality, tolerance, free inquiry, freedom of conscience and reconciliation.”
“The Satanic Temple never asked for the Ten Commandments monument to be taken down, nor do we ask that Baphomet be erected to the exclusion of any other monuments of religious significance,” Greaves continued. “We have as little interest in forcing our beliefs and symbols upon you as we do in having the beliefs of others forced upon us.”
Of course, there were plenty of people who showed up to protest the Satanists. Christian protesters were on hand, holding Bibles and signs with scriptures written on them. A few people also brought Confederate flags, though it’s not clear exactly why. Things were peaceful between the two groups as the Christians mostly just sang hymns throughout the event.
Path to Hell
The biggest outburst came from a man in a ski mask and holding a large stick who interrupted Greaves’ speech, shouting that he was “leading people to hell.” That man was led away by a police officer before any sort of violence broke out.
There was also opposition from Arkansas state lawmakers against the Satanists’ monument going up. “The Satanic Temple’s application [to erect the monument permanently] was blocked by an emergency-session bill that requires all monuments have legislative sponsorship,” wrote the Temple in a statement.
Emphasizing the Point
“While the bill prevented the Baphomet statue from being considered, ironically it only magnifies the degree to which the State legislators are endorsing one religion over others and thereby deliberately rejecting the US Constitution,” the statement continued.
Agree to Disagree
But to State Senator Jason Rapert, that apparent violation of the First Amendment was not reason enough to stop him from opposing the statue of Baphomet to the best of his ability. “Though we respect their right to free speech, they must also respect our right to disagree with them and repudiate their false claims,” he said in a Facebook post.
A Cold Day
“No matter what these extremists may claim, it will be a very cold day in hell before an offensive statue will be forced upon us to be permanently erected on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol,” Sen. Rapert concluded.