Several U.S. school districts indicated Monday that they think the Satanic Temple’s plan to open “After School Satan” clubs in elementary schools probably conforms with their policies and local laws, and the Prince George’s County, Md., school system said it is reviewing a request to open such a club.
If the districts allow the clubs, it would pave the way for the Temple to create a counterpoint to evangelical Christian clubs in schools nationwide.
The Satanic Temple on Monday contacted school districts across the country to announce that it wants to open after-school clubs that focus on teaching reason and science, including at an elementary school in Prince George’s. Temple leaders in part want to make the point that religion should not be taught in public schools, and they are working to start clubs in schools or school districts that have hosted proselytizing religious clubs, such as the Good News Club, which is allowed to sponsor groups in schools.
Parents and administrators have reacted coolly to the idea of setting up a Jesus-vs.-Satan fight in their elementary schools, with many showing curiosity and skepticism. School officials in Prince George’s said they have received a request to start a club and are reviewing it, but the school system has not had any discussions with the Satanic Temple about it. The Temple said it wants to open a club at Bradbury Heights Elementary School, which is in the Capitol Heights neighborhood just outside the southeast edge of Washington.
Jay Howard-Brock, former PTA president of the school, said she was as surprised to hear about the idea of an After School Satan club as she was about the existence of the Good News Club in the area.
“I thought [Prince George’s] County had a policy where they separated church and state,” said Howard-Brock, who said she is Christian and responded favorably to the concept of the Good News Club. She said she thinks that “in the times that we live in now, and all that’s going on with our children, it is a positive thing.”
But when she learned about the possibility of an After School Satan Club, she suggested that maybe all religious groups should move off campus.
“It’s going to become a distraction,” she said. “We should just abolish groups like that from being on school premises, because it just may offend someone. The kids really need to focus on the education piece.”
The Good News Club — which is sponsored by the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) and has proliferated in schools after a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowed such groups to use public school facilities — brings evangelical Christianity to elementary-school children as young as kindergartners. Reactions from the Good News Club to the entry of this new competitor were mixed.
Martha Wright, executive director of CEF of Maryland, acknowledged that the Satanic Temple has a right to have clubs in schools but also said she doesn’t really want the group there.
“Well of course, when the Supreme Court voted in 2001 that religious groups could have equal access, that opened the door to any religious group,” she said, noting that her group is on the opposite side of the spectrum from the Satanic Temple. “Because we know Jesus as our savior, it is not our opinion or desire that we want satanic groups to get involved in the school.”
CEF actively works to counteract Satan in its work, and a CEF instruction book titled “Guard Your Heart” promises “a flocked lesson helping kids ages 6-11 guard against Satan’s attacks.”
The Satanic Temple doesn’t actually worship the devil; it rejects the belief in any supernatural entities and regards “Satan” as a metaphorical construct.
The move to start After School Satan clubs is a direct attack on religion in the schools, and it comes from a group that has worked to oppose the use of religious ceremony in the public arena, such as at city council meetings. It is unclear how much interest such school clubs would have, especially in places where Christian groups are welcomed, but school districts said they are considering allowing them.
A representative of the Tucson Unified School District in Arizona indicated that the use of the facility described by the Satanic Temple falls clearly within the district’s student club policy. Ben Horsley, a spokesman for the Granite School District surrounding South Lake City, noted that the district hosts many different religious and secular groups on public elementary school campuses.
“So as long as the activities are not illegal, we will treat these organizations all the same,” he said.
Melisa Pehrson, president of the Parent Teacher Organization at Vista Elementary School in Taylorsville, Utah, one of the schools where the Satanic Temple intends to open a club, said she wanted to learn more about it before weighing in.
“The title alone is very provocative, and it would perhaps strike some curiosity,” she said.
Sabrina Perkins, vice president of the Vista PTO, was more skeptical, in part because of the large Mormon population in the region.
“If they call it ‘The Satan Group,’ it’s not going to go well here in Utah, I can tell you that,” she said. “I can’t say that I like it either. Why do they have to name it after a not-very-good person if they want to teach good things?”
The Good News Club operates in 23 schools in Fairfax County, Va., which has one of the nation’s largest school districts. Schools spokesman John Torre said the Satanic Temple has made no requests to host an After School Satan Club in any of its schools, but Fairfax does not bar groups from using schools based on their views.
“FCPS schools are public facilities and, as such, the buildings and properties are available to the public — including community groups — regardless of political, religious or any other affiliation or message,” Torre said.
One group has responded with great enthusiasm to the Satanic Temple’s proposed after-school clubs: volunteers. In the 24 hours after the announcement of the Temple’s plans, several dozen individuals from around the country wrote to Temple leaders to offer their services for any club formed in their areas.
A retired teacher and grandmother from Abingdon, Pa., Kathleen Knight says she taught at Christian and Catholic schools for many years but would be interested in getting involved in an After School Satan club because she thinks it is important to keep religion and public school separate.
“Faith has a place in a lot of people’s lives, and I respect that it serves an important role,” she said. “But for us, and for our future, it’s incredibly important that kids be taught how to separate that out, and not to confuse it with public school.”
Chris Savage, a student and father of a 1-year-old in Forth Worth, says he is opposed to any kind of religious proselytizing in schools — especially at the elementary level. But as long as the evangelical clubs are active, he wants there to be something else for students to consider.
“I would do everything I can for the ASSC,” Savage said. “They are challenging religious privilege, and I think that’s important.”
Stewart is a Boston-based journalist. She is author of “The Good News Club,” an investigative book about public education and religious fundamentalism in America. Balingit reported from Washington.