Satanists Troll Hobby Lobby

How far do religious-liberty claims actually extend following the Supreme Court's ruling? 

Srdjan Zivulovic/Reuters

Sometimes American religious liberty gets weird. An Amish person can be sent to prison for shearing the beard of another Amish person. A gentile can discover a love for kosher food in prison. And the same laws that protect the religious freedom of evangelical Christians also apply to devoted Satanists.

This week, the Satanists made moves to claim their share of liberty. The Satanic Temple, a putatively diabolical denomination, announced it's seeking a religious exemption for people who live in states with "informed consent" laws that require doctors to share certain information with women before they get an abortion. This sometimes includes materials about "the link between abortion and breast cancer, as well as claims regarding a depressive 'post­abortion syndrome,'" the Satanic Temple claims, which they see as "'scientifically unfounded' and 'medically invalid' and therefore an affront to their religious beliefs."

Objections to informed-consent laws are not new, but the Satanists' tactic is. They're invoking the Supreme Court's ruling in Hobby Lobby, which said that "closely held" businesses with religious objections to contraceptives cannot be required to cover them in the insurance they provide to their employees, as required by the Affordable Care Act. The plaintiffs claimed the mandate violated their religious beliefs, and the Court agreed, saying in a 5-4 ruling that the government had not devised the "least restrictive means" of making contraceptives affordable and accessible to women.

The Satanic Temple is inverting the context of that ruling: It believes in a woman's right to get an abortion without having to listen to information its members see as non-scientific. This is rooted in the group's belief in a "scientific understanding of the world," according to the press release.

As a thought experiment, this is fascinating, because it tests the boundaries of the Hobby Lobby ruling, asking: How will the Court's decision change the nature of religious-liberty claims in the United States? This is not the first time this question has come up. The ruling has already encouraged religious groups to petition the White House for special consideration on matters like non-discrimination against gay employees.

Here, though, the Satanists are pushing the question further. As a serious proposition, there are two big problems with the Satanic Temple's case. The organization's legal claims don't really hold up, and, as it turns out, it's not Satanic.

First, the organization isn't actually seeking an exemption through legal means, like a lawsuit or a legislative change. Instead, it has "drawn up a letter for women who are considering an abortion. The letter explains our position and puts the care provider on notice that a failure to respect our call for an exemption from state—mandated informed consent materials constitutes a violation of our religious liberty."

But that letter is legally meaningless, explained Ira Lupu, a law professor at George Washington University. "These laws create obligations for doctors to inform, not obligations for women to listen or read," he wrote in an email.

The Satanic Temple's spokesman, Lucien Greaves, said in an email that the letter is a first step. "We are not looking to initiate a proactive lawsuit in revolt against anti-abortion laws. We are prepared, however, to go to court to defend our deeply held beliefs if and when our religious liberties, as outlined in our exemption letter, are not respected."

But the problem is not just that the letter is meaningless; it's unclear that informed-consent laws actually create a religious burden on anyone, Satanist or not. The main question in Hobby Lobby was whether the law was a burden on religious practice, said Eduardo Peñalver, the dean of the Cornell University Law School. "The typical form a burden is saying, 'I’m being coerced to do something that my religious forbids me to do, or coerced not to do something that my religion requires me to do,'" he explained. "I’m not sure how these informed-consent laws would be framed in those terms—my religion forbids me from hearing these informed-consent disclosures?"

The other problem is that the Satanic Temple wants to extend this exemption to "all women who share our deeply held belief." Peñalver said this undermines the organization's claim. "If these are people who are not members of the Satanist Temple or adherents to Satanism, their basis for objecting may not be religious," he said. "If you’re going to raise a religious claim, you have to have a religious point of view."

And this is where things get a little tricky for the Satanic Temple. As Gideon Resnick wrote in The Atlantic in February, "Lucien Greaves" is actually a pseudonym used by a man named Douglas Mesner. He isn't actually much into Satan worship. “I think that idea is silly,” he told Resnick. “I can’t even conceive of that actually being the case.” He added, “I mean, I try to respect other people’s beliefs as far as that kind of thing goes.”

According to Resnick, the Satanic Temple only has about 20 active members; people can join through an email listserv. Although the size of the group doesn't directly affect the strength of its religious-liberty claims, their goals and actions do provide evidence about how sincere they are. "To say your religion is completely separated from your politics is asinine," Mesner told Resnick in February. "Our political actions are our religion."

In short, if the Satanic Temple took this to court, it would probably have a hard time showing that informed-consent laws are a violation of its sincerely held religious beliefs, rather than a group of people's political views.

But as much as anything, the Satanic Temple is trying to make a point: The Supreme Court has accepted the earnestness of one group's politically controversial religious views, leaving an open question about what qualifies as a sincerely held religious belief. The ruling in Hobby Lobby was made "in the context of a familiar religious tradition, rather than one outside of the mainstream," Peñalver said. "We’re a religiously diverse country."

This case "seems self-consciously political and theatrical," said Peñalver. But "in terms of the kinds of religious claims we might see in the future, that’s a very difficult question to answer."

Juxtaposing the religious beliefs of alleged Satanists and evangelical Christians may seem farcical, but it's revealing: It's not enough to claim that a law you disagree with violates your conscience; there are still complicated legal tests for those claims. As Lupu said, "This is politically serious and legally a bit silly."