Religious Minorities

Ariz. lawmakers want to ban ‘Satanic’ displays on public property – but keep the Christian ones

  Mary Cugini

Last year, when a variety of groups put up holiday displays at the Iowa State Capitol, the Satanic Temple of Iowa did, too. Even though a sign made it clear that the display was “not owned, maintained or promoted, supported or associated with the State of Iowa,” the display of the Pagan idol Baphomet became unnecessarily contentious and was vandalized shortly after going up. And now, lawmakers in Arizona and Iowa have introduced bills that would ban Satanic displays on any government-owned property in the state, which, needless to say, would be unconstitutional.

A Senate Government Committee meeting last week on the Arizona bill demonstrated how bizarre these measures are. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jake Hoffman (R-Queen Creek), began the discussion by opining that, “Satanism is not a religion. Satan is implicitly antithetical to religion.” Hoffman then repeatedly interrupted members of the public testifying against the bill, arguing that Satanism as a religion is a “ludicrous statement,” adding that Satan is “universally known to be explicitly the enemy of God,” and that “literally everyone” agrees with that statement.” Hoffman also declared that a “satanic display, memorial, statue, altar” would be a “desecration of our public property.”

Equal treatment for all faiths

The First Amendment’s protections, however, don’t depend on the opinions of lawmakers. It protects even idiosyncratic religious beliefs that others might find incorrect or incomprehensible.

Thus, the First Amendment bars the government from picking and choosing among viewpoints and religious beliefs. Yet, by outlawing only Satanic memorials and displays (and not displays of any other type), the bill unconstitutionally targets the beliefs of Satanists. This bill is anything but neutral – it favors other religions over Satanism.

Fortunately, several people pointed out the constitutional problems with this bill. Joshua Gray, a former Marine and firefighter, testified that the bill was insulting to the very concept of religious liberty. “I fought for everyone’s freedom – everyone’s,” Gray said. He explained that the U.S. Constitution does not specify that Abrahamic religions are somehow better or more protected than any other religion. Gray continued, “The unconstitutional nature of this bill is not a matter of opinion.”

Tossing aside the First Amendment

Voting against the bill, Sen. Juan Mendez (D-Tempe) asked his fellow committee members why he was the only one there who was willing to defend the U.S. Constitution. He warned that “any religion viewed by the sponsor or this committee as a ‘desecration to Christianity’ is no longer safe in Arizona.”

Nevertheless, the bill passed the committee by a 5-1 vote.

It’s a shame that Hoffman and others are eager to toss aside the protections of the First Amendment in order to use the government to target people who are Satanists – even though the First Amendment was explicitly designed to protect the freedom of religion and belief of all Americans.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State will continue to track these bills and fight laws that seek to treat some religions as unequal.

Photo: The Satanic Temple’s display in the Iowa statehouse. 

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