Despite Satanic Temple-sponsored event, group still plans to pursue York County lawsuit

Meredith Willse
York Dispatch

The Satanic Temple held its back-to-school event Saturday at Northern High School, but the organization said the district didn't go far enough to protect all students' rights.

Northern York County School Board members approved the event that happened Saturday, but not before rejecting a proposed temple-affiliated after-school club this spring.

“We’re still going to sue," the temple's co-founder, Lucien Greaves, told The York Dispatch. "We’re still going to litigate for their refusal of our After School Satan Club."

About 50 people attended the back-to-school event, which also attracted a small group of protesters from the American Society for Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, who prayed while holding "honk for Jesus" signs. June Everett, the After School Satan Club campaign director, said she was concerned some people may have been discouraged from attending by the protesters and the heavy police presence.

Despite being granted tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service in 2019, the Salem, Massachusetts-based organization does not literally worship Satan. Instead, it “encourages benevolence and empathy” and pushes for a stronger separation of church and state — often through lawsuits.

The Satanic Temple has pursued lawsuits under many different names — its own, the "United Federation of Churches" and various members' and lawyers' names — making a full accounting difficult, based on a review of the temple's website and federal court records. The temple and its various affiliates have filed 18 lawsuits since 2015. Its targets included school districts, media companies like Netflix and news organizations like Newsweek.

So far, federal judges ruled against the temple in all of the cases that have been fully adjudicated. The York Dispatch has not attempted to make a full accounting of cases in various state and territorial courts.

"The lawsuits wouldn't be necessary if any of these areas were actually following the law," Greaves said, when asked why the temple has filed so many lawsuits. "We're just asserting our equal access claims to public accommodations and we're being denied those — illegally and unconstitutionally — so it's necessary that we take these things to court."

Greaves said the courts have been biased against the temple. Losing a case, he added, doesn't mean the temple's tactics are wrong.

"You don't need a law degree to see when equality is not being respected," he said.

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In April, the temple threatened legal action against Northern York County school officials after board members voted against the after-school program.

So far, the organization has not followed through on the threat. The group has five years to pursue legal action, according to Everett.

The board rejected the temple’s club request in April but voted in August to allow the organization to rent its high school auditorium for an event from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday. The temple requested the space for a back-to-school event to give people an alternative to a prayer event hosted on Aug. 20 by Dillsburg Community Worship and Prayer. 

Deana Weaver, 62, of the Dillsburg Area Freethinkers, who shares her self-taught knowledge on fossils, gemstones and human evolution in southcentral Pennsylvania, said she had asked the prayer group if she could set up her displays at their August event. She said they turned her down because she wasn't a believer. Weaver asked the the Satanic Temple if she could join its back-to-school night, which it allowed. She was there Saturday night with displays spread across a few tables, handing out shark teeth, fossils and other small treats to the children who visited her.

Yardley Sipe (10), from Marietta, playing the Theremin at the Satanic Temple's back to school event at Northern High School in Dillsburg on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022.

The children also got to enjoy crafts, coloring, face painting and tarot card readings and were able to meet reptiles and insects or play with a theremin, which is a musical instrument played by waving hands near special antennas.

Greaves said his organization's after-school club proposal is a simple request for the board to uphold the First Amendment with equal access. The board can't pick and choose which groups can be in the schools, he said. 

“I think that grown adults who have the most basic understanding of civics should be able to see past all of that and understand the issues that are most important,” Greaves said. 

After the school board approved the back-to-school event, the district released a statement saying the district cannot pick and choose who uses its facilities. Such rentals do not constitute endorsement.

“If we allow one organization, we must allow all organizations, provided they satisfy the conditions and application requirements as set for in Policy 707,” the statement read.

Board President Ken Sechrist declined comment for this story.

Greaves said the school's public statement supporting the Satanic Temple event is still wrong because they erred when they rejected the request for an after-school club.

“They brought this on themselves,” he said.

Travis Reese (10), from Hellertown, PA, looking at geodes at the Satanic Temple's back to school event at Northern High School in Dillsburg on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022.

Among the reasons school officials gave in April for denying the after-school club request was the fact that the proposal was initiated by a parent. In April, Sechrist told The York Dispatch that such clubs are created based on student interest — not at the request of a parent.

The presence of religion in public schools has had a long and fraught history in the United States.

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One case temple supporters cite is Good News Club v. Milford Central School. Back in 1997, a private Christian organization sued a New York-based school claiming the school violated its rights after the school rejected the organization's request for a weekly after-school club. A district judge sided with the school, but the Supreme Court ruled in 2001 in favor of the club and its freedom of speech.

The Supreme Court also recently ruled that a former Washington state public high school football coach Joseph Kennedy had the right to kneel on the athletic field and pray. The school district had told Kennedy that he wasn't allowed to kneel on the field and pray, and he sued the district, claiming the district violated his First Amendment right, and lost. The nation's highest court ultimately sided with the coach, leaving open the door to allow religion back into public schools.

Locally, Joy El Ministries, a Christian faith-based group, previously found a workaround to get its club, Bible Adventure, into the schools. The club is available for third to eighth graders who meet for about an hour during the day. Students at various school districts across the county leave the public schools for religious instruction through Joy El.

From Greaves' perspective, there's no difference between the rights of the Joy El club and the After School Satan Club.

“I’m really hoping that people understand the primary democratic principles that are being upheld by our inclusion and stop turning this into a story of Satanists versus Christians,” he said.

Everett added the temple only starts these clubs where there already is a version of the Good News Club in the school and if they are requested. She said there are currently two soon-to-be active clubs in Lebanon, Ohio, and Moline, Illinois, and the organization has received requests to possibly start more.

She added that she is looking into setting up something similar to what Joy El does, transporting students out for religious or moral instruction, which might be a possibility for this school year.