As an outside group is asking to hold “satanic religious services” at the U.S. Naval Academy, questions have arisen as to its actual motives for doing so.
The Satanic Temple (TST), a group recognized as a church by the Internal Revenue Service, has threatened legal action against the U.S. Naval Academy if Midshipmen are not allowed to hold “satanic services” on campus as members of other religions are allowed to do.
However, Jordan Lorence, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, told CNA that the group’s efforts at the Naval Academy are “misleading” because what they wish for “is not a satanic service.” Rather, what certain Midshipmen wish to host “is a discussion about how the supernatural doesn’t exist.”
On Oct. 8, an internal email was sent to the Brigade of Midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy announcing that “‘satanic services’ would start this week,” according to a Wednesday statement issued by Commander Alana Garas, public affairs officer at the United States Naval Academy.
“This email was sent without the review and approval of the Naval Academy’s Command Chaplain, as required by command policy; it did not represent the U.S. Naval Academy’s Command Religious Program,” Garas said.
The academy had previously walked back an original email announcement of satanic services and had said that services would not be taking place on campus.
The Satanic Temple then said on Wednesday that it would pursue legal action if the group was “discriminated against” on campus by being denied official services at the academy.
Lucien Greaves, a spokesperson for the Satanic Temple, called the idea of the group being denied services at the Naval Academy on the grounds that it constituted political advocacy “self-evidently absurd.”
Under that reasoning, he said, the academy would also “be obligated to deny the services of Catholics for their Church’s political lobbying against abortion, the services of LDS-affiliated Mormons for their political activism related to gay marriage, and most every Protestant denomination for both.”
Controversy over the Satanic Temple has been ongoing for years, with critics arguing it is a political-cultural stunt, while temple founders have repeatedly asserted that it is a religion and not merely a hoax or performance.
The group’s mission statement does not include any statements of satanism, but rather claims that it exists “to encourage benevolence and empathy among all people, reject tyrannical authority, advocate practical common sense and justice, and be directed by the human conscience to undertake noble pursuits by the individual will.”
In a 2013 interview with Vice, the temple’s leader, Lucien Greaves, revealed himself to be a man named Doug Mesner. He said a friend had conceived the Satanic Temple as “a ‘poison pill’ in the Church-State Debate” to help expand the idea of religious agendas in public life.
“So at the inception, the political message was primary,” Mesner said, though he acknowledged that there are self-identified Satanists who deserve “just as much consideration as any other religious group.”
An October 2017 story at Vox portrayed the Satanic Temple as “equal parts performance art group, leftist activist organization, and anti-religion religious movement.” It claimed that though it began as “internet trolling going mainstream,” the organization is becoming “more serious” and “more complicated” to outline. It said chapter leadership members debate which historic works about Satan to recommend and whether it should host more ritual.
Lorence contended that despite adopting the name of The Satanic Temple and using satanic imagery, the group is just “anti-supernatural and rationalistic” rather than satanic like the Church of Satan.
Previously, the group tried to push an “After School Satan” program in 2016, which Lorence saw as an effort to undermine Christian after-school programs at public schools. The group’s strategy, which cited religious freedom laws to demand a space at public schools alongside other religious after-school programs, aimed to use fear of the promotion of satanism as a means to shut down all religious after-school programs.
“The Satanic Temple does not worship Satan,” Lorence said. “They use this ‘Satanic Temple’ label to confuse people.”
And the group could be trying to adopt a similar strategy at the Naval Academy, Lorence said. As a public institution, the academy “is by law open to groups that are student-oriented and student-led.”
According to the academy, a group of Midshipmen whose “beliefs aligned with those practiced by The Satanic Temple” did make a request for a space at the academy, but they asked for a “study space” and not a space to hold “satanic services,” Commander Garas said.
The academy’s official statement on Wednesday said that the Command Religious Program “provides for the exercise of diverse beliefs.”
Furthermore, “[a]rrangements were being made to provide the Midshipmen with a designated place to assemble as chaplains facilitate for the beliefs of all service members,” per the Navy instructions, Garas said. However, the group would not be able to “engage in partisan political activities.”