'After School Satan Club' sparks religious freedom debate in Virginia

CHESAPEAKE, Va. (WAVY) — The announcement of an “After School Satan Club” at a primary school in Virginia caused concerned among many local parents.

A flyer circulated on social media, which announced the club and its planned launch at B.M. Williams Primary School in Chesapeake on Dec. 15.

“We are non-theistic,” said Rose Bastet, a volunteer organizing the new club. “I understand the apprehension behind the satanic name, but he is just an imaginary figure that we look to because he is the eternal rebel that fought for justice and humanity.”

According to the organizers of the After School Satan Club, this all started when an email promoting the Evangelical Good News Club came to parents from B.M. Williams Principal Brighid Gates back in September. A flyer came along with it, describing the Bible and scripture lessons that are a part of the club.

That’s when June Everett, the club’s national campaign director, says she got a call from a school parent asking them to start a club at a school.

The point of the club is to offer an alternative to Christian-based groups, Everett said. “The initial shock is always like, ‘Oh my God, Satan!’ We do have our deeply held religious beliefs, which are our seven tenets. If you look them over, it’s essentially: ‘Be a good person.”

For context: The club is a project of the Satanic Temple, which despite its name, doesn’t worship the Biblical figure — or even believe Satan exists. The organization operates as more of an advocacy group, saying it aims to “encourage empathy, reject tyrannical authority,” in addition to promoting “common sense” and “opposing injustice.” The group has made many court challenges to (often conservative) laws that may only protect or promote Christianity, as The Hill reports.

The Satanic Temple is often confused with the earlier Church of Satan, founded in the 1960s, which the Temple is not aligned with, per its website. Most notably, the Temple has protested anti-LGBTQ lawmakers and organizations and challenged GOP abortion bans, saying bans violate its beliefs that only individuals have rights to make decisions about their own bodies.

Everett says she got approval from the school to start the club, but that they won’t distribute permission slips and flyers as they did with the Good News Club. The school has yet to comment on that.

The school district did, however, share a letter sent to families from Superintendent Dr. Jared Cotton.

In the statement sent to members of the Chesapeake Public Schools community, Cotton clarified his intent to “maintain transparency.”

Cotton confirmed the school district approved the ASSC’s building use request for after school gatherings at B.M. Williams since the club met the criteria under CPS Board policy regarding community use of facilities.

However, Cotton noted that the ASSC is not a school district-approved club, and no district employee is sponsoring the club.

“The school board does not approve building use forms and has not voted in this case,” said Cotton.

He also reminded community members of the school district’s long-held policies and procedures allowing varied community groups to use publicly funded facilities outside of the school day.

“This is common practice among school districts around the state and nation. Over the years, different religious groups have requested and been allowed to rent our facilities after hours,” said Cotton. “By law, CPS cannot discriminate based on beliefs among groups wishing to rent our facilities.”

Cotton stated the issue has been added to the agenda in the upcoming school board meeting set for Dec. 12. Everett says the school board cannot vote on or make any decision related to whether the club is allowed to function, however.

“This is really out of the hands of the board,” she said. “The board doesn’t really get to decide, under constitutional law, who has access and who doesn’t. So while I appreciate that they are letting concerned community members come in and vent, it’s really out of their hands.”

Everett pointed to the Supreme Court decision in 2001’s Good News v. Milford Central School case. The court ruled then that a school district cannot limit the First Amendment rights of groups wanting access to a school.

Everett added: “Even if you don’t like us, we’re part of what makes the United States a great country, where you can believe what you want to believe or not.”

What does the Satanic Temple believe?

The Satanic Temple says it has seven fundamental tenets:

  1. One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason.
  2. The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.
  3. One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.
  4. The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo one’s own.
  5. Beliefs should conform to one’s best scientific understanding of the world. One should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one’s beliefs.
  6. People are fallible. If one makes a mistake, one should do one’s best to rectify it and resolve any harm that might have been caused.
  7. Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word.