The Satanic Temple’s proposal to start After School Satan Clubs in schools across the country already has sparked conflict with at least one school district and has led a legal group to offer free assistance in fighting the emergence of the clubs.
Although the temple has yet to start a club, its move this week to establish them in elementary schools has begun to provoke a debate about the role of religious activity in public schools — which is exactly what the group was hoping to do.
The Roskruge Bilingual K-8 School in Tucson is one of eight schools that received a written proposal to establish an After School Satan Club on Monday, and on Tuesday, lawyers for the Tucson Unified School District demanded that the Satanic Temple remove the school’s name from its website. The temple listed Roskruge as a place where it has offered to present its curriculum, but the district argues that no club has been approved there.
Roskruge’s principal, Jose Olivas, sent a voice mail and an email to parents assuring them that the proposed club “does not currently meet the minimum requirement of having a faculty sponsor.”
Lucien Greaves, co-founder of the Satanic Temple, said the group does not intend to take the school’s name off its website. Greaves also said the school hosts a Good News Club, a program promoting evangelical Christianity to elementary-age children. He said the evangelical program is one of the primary exhibits in the temple’s efforts to show that religious clubs shouldn’t be allowed in public schools.
“We’re just asking for equal access,” Greaves said.
Stu De Haan, a spokesman for the Satanic Temple’s Arizona chapter, said he has received expressions of interest in the new clubs from parents, teachers and students.
“We’re working diligently to comply with the established school policy,” De Haan said. “We are confident we will be treated equally and fairly in comparison with the other religious organization, the Good News Club, which was given access to the public school and its students.”
The Good News Club at Roskruge meets every Wednesday immediately after school. According to Stefanie Boe, a Tucson schools spokeswoman, the Good News Club has a faculty sponsor and does not pay rent for the use of the school’s facilities. The district considers it to be a “student club,” meaning that it is not directed or controlled by “nonschool persons.”
Many of Tucson Unified’s public elementary schools host Good News Clubs, which are typically supported and funded by local evangelical churches.
The Good News Club appears to be popular with some parents at Roskruge Bilingual, but some said it is popular in part because there are few other options.
“The thing that bothers me is every Wednesday kids get out an hour early, which is a nightmare for working parents unless there are after-school activities,” said one parent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing concerns about how her son might be treated at school. She said the proposal for an After School Satan Club has many in the school community talking. “Wednesday is the only day without sports or other activities; the Good News Club is the only free option.”
Legal experts say the head-to-head competition between the Good News Clubs and the After School Satan Clubs could set up a test for religious liberty. Ira Lupu, an emeritus professor at the George Washington University Law School and co-author of “Secular Government, Religious People,” said equal access to the public schools, if honored, can be a two-edged sword.
“Either the Satan Club is in, or the Good News Club is out,” he said.
Richard Katskee, legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a religious liberty watchdog group, agrees that the school district “cannot prohibit students from forming an After School Satan Club on the same terms as the Good News Club.”
The Liberty Counsel, which has long supported the Good News Clubs in their drive to gain access to public schools, has taken an increasingly aggressive stance against the Satan clubs. On Sunday, the group’s leader, Mat Staver, said he opposes the clubs but noted that they, too, have a First Amendment right to meet.
Later in the week, Staver was pushing harder against the clubs.
“The so-called Satanist group has nothing good to offer the students and its entire reason for existence is to be disruptive,” he said in statement. The Liberty Counsel is offering pro bono legal assistance to “schools targeted by this disruptive group.”
The Satanic Temple denies that its clubs would be more disruptive than other religious after-school groups, which the U.S. Supreme Court has said have a right to meet at public schools.
“The curriculum is positive and educational, and the only disruption would be caused by the naysayers,” De Haan says. “The Satanic Temple has the same rights as the Good News Clubs, which is the very organization that forced public elementary schools to open their doors to religion in the first place.”
Stewart is a Boston-based journalist.