The so-called “Satanic prayer” at the Aug. 9 Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting was widely reported on and left some Alaskans outraged. Others shook their heads or shrugged. Was this an earnest prayer for satanic principles to guide assembly members in discerning the public good or a tongue-in-cheek mockery of public invocations in general?
In all likelihood it was the latter, but the motives behind the brief sensationalistic prayer, which ended with “Hail Satan,” is far more enlightening than the invocation itself.
A little history is helpful. Prayer to start government meetings isn’t new in this country. In 1774 the First Continental Congress had paid chaplains for this purpose. Today federal, state and local governments around the nation regularly open meetings with prayer. The Kenai Assembly was following a long-held American tradition of recognizing that our lives are best understood when they are in accord with truths that precede and predate the state.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that such prayers, freely offered by members of the community, are fine so long as they are not “exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.”
Despite enjoying Constitutional and historical support, this practice does not sit well with some who do not believe in any higher power or supernatural existence. Such was the case in the Kenai Borough.
Earlier this year, attendees at a few borough meetings complained about being offended by the practice of opening with prayer. That led to a failed effort to ban the practice entirely.
In June, Assembly President Blaine Gilman pushed to end the opening prayers.
“It is important that the assembly does what it reasonably can to help all residents feel welcome at assembly meetings,” Gilman wrote in a memo to his fellow assembly members. “Additionally, if the invocation practice continues, the assembly will have to develop policies and procedures to attempt to comply with legal requirements.”
At the time, some assembly members raised the point that if public prayers continue they would have to be open to people of all faiths, including, perhaps, Satanists. That would ensure that they did not discriminate against any group based on religious views.
Just two months later, a local Kenai woman and member of the Satanic Temple, Iris Fontana, took to the microphone and offered her widely reported invocation.
Contrary to appearance, Fontana was not doing what other religious leaders had done in offering public prayers.
By her own admission she was not praying to Satan or asking for his wisdom. As a member of the Satanic Temple she does not actually believe in a real being named Satan, nor does she believe in any supernatural reality at all. According to the Satanic Temple website the group does “not promote a belief in a personal Satan. To embrace the name Satan is to embrace rational inquiry removed from supernaturalism and archaic tradition-based superstitions. The Satanist should actively work to hone critical thinking and exercise reasonable agnosticism in all things.”
So why was Ms. Fontana filling a slot set aside for religious leaders to offer prayers to God?
The Satanic Temple’s recent initiatives show that Fontana’s “prayer” is part of the group’s larger aim to exorcise religion from the public square.
Over the past several years the Satanic Temple has launched initiatives to erect satanic monuments on public grounds next to religious monuments; and it is currently pushing for satanic student clubs in public schools, alongside student-led prayer groups and Bible studies. These are attempts to shock the public into reevaluating the long-standing practice of making public institutions and facilities open to people who hold religious views. The ultimate aim is to pressure communities to strip the public square of all religious speech, symbols and activity in order to avoid giving a platform to Satanists.
There are a few ways communities might respond to this pressure. They could ban satanic groups based on community decency standards in which local communities regularly and legally ban symbols, images and activities (such as nudity and grotesque violence) because they are blatantly offensive to the public at large. The argument could be made that Satan, even as a symbol, has long been linked with the most offensive behaviors and practices in human history.
Communities might also choose to allow satanic groups to pray in public meetings and open their own school clubs alongside authentically religious ones and then let conflicting ideas and beliefs play out in the public forum.
There is, however, a priority in making these decisions. Certainly students should be allowed to gather for prayer and Bible studies during lunchtime without being treated differently from groups that advocate atheism or a purely materialistic view of the world. Banning religious groups altogether would violate religious freedoms. Prayer before a borough meeting, however, is not as essential to upholding religious freedom. Some see this practice as a formal show of strength and influence by the religious majority. Perhaps these prayers should be discontinued rather than descend into the absurdity of allowing atheists, posing as a Satanists, to make a mockery of faith in the public square.