"This isn't a joke to us": Satanists get serious about challenging antiabortion laws

A Satanic Temple member tells Salon there's nothing funny about new campaign for abortion rights, post-Hobby Lobby

Published July 30, 2014 4:00PM (EDT)

Sculpture created by the Satanic Temple               (MSNBC)
Sculpture created by the Satanic Temple (MSNBC)

It's probably fair to say that the Satanic Temple is never going to have the mainstream traction of an organization like Planned Parenthood, but its members have nonetheless joined the fight for reproductive rights by launching a campaign challenging coercive antiabortion counseling laws. But unlike other groups that have gone to court over these laws, the Temple is challenging mandatory counseling as a matter of faith.

According to Jex Blackmore, a member of the Satanic Temple ministry and head of the Detroit Satanic Temple chapter, the Temple saw an opportunity to take action after the Supreme Court issued its sweeping ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. "Given the current state of things, given those dominant religious voices that we're hearing right now, it is still infinitely better that a diversity of faiths and beliefs are respected and granted rights and privileges, rather than letting one set of beliefs co-opt the authority of the government," she told Salon.

Salon talked to Blackmore about the campaign, how the organization envisions its place in the reproductive rights movement and, of course, satan.

Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

How did the idea for this campaign come about? 

The tenets that we hold as really important to our organization include individual freedom, self-ownership, bodily integrity. Those are really vital to our foundational beliefs.

The things that are going on that have really affected women's rights in our country have been very troubling to us in the Temple. This is not new, these are things we've been discussing for a long time. We really saw, especially with the Hobby Lobby ruling, the power and privileges and exemptions granted to religious organizations. We saw this as an opportunity to really combat and tackle that from a different standpoint than just speaking out about it.

This gave us an opportunity to take action in an interesting way. But before the Hobby Lobby ruling, this was all already in the works. We are upset by informed consent laws, and the mandatory waiting periods and ultrasounds, we find them incredibly offensive and wrong. We'd like to offer an opportunity for individuals who are members of the Satanic Temple or others who see their values aligned with ours to have freedom from that kind of oppression or coercion.

In some ways, what you're doing seems like a more straightforward read on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act than the exemption Hobby Lobby requested. The Hobby Lobby decision required a few leaps. First that corporations are people, then that corporations are people who can pray. But the Satanic Temple is asking for protection from the government for individuals with specific religious beliefs -- in this case, from coercive and medically inaccurate antiabortion laws.  

It's been very obvious to us that there is a dominant voice that is rooted in religion. That is especially true for women's rights being impacted by certain religious beliefs. That's part of what the controversy is then, because people feel their belief systems are not being respected. I think that is a very straightforward approach. To say, "We have these rights as well. They may not be your beliefs, but we demand legal respect to adhere to our practices."

The concept of "Satan" or the Satanic Temple is a very shocking kind of word, and we're very aware of that. But that's just part of it. That's who we have chosen as a figure that we hold dear. At the same time, this isn't a joke to us. I think it is very straightforward. Especially in terms of certain legislation work for everybody.

If we have an opportunity to stand and say we want to represent people like us who do not want to feel shame or guilt because they don't fall in line with the dominant voice.

Have you taken actual steps to challenge the laws on religious grounds? 

In terms of the exemption form we've created, we're not looking to proactively sue to have informed consent laws repealed. However, we will definitely follow up with a legal suit if those exemption forms fail to be recognized.

This is largely a campaign for people. This won't happen unless people get on board and unless they want to participate. We're certainly not trying to force anyone to use it if they don't feel comfortable or don't agree with it, but we'd like to put it out there to make sure that people are respected. That they aren't forced to review or view state-mandated information that is largely biased. We feel very strongly that we should do everything that we can to facilitate a safer process to obtain abortion, one that is not so socially stigmatized.

So Satan has never factored into my life or my writing on reproductive justice, but I still receive emails from people telling me that I am am a satanist, even though I am not a satanist. You are actually a satanist. How are people taking that? 

The response for this campaign has been amazingly positive. There's been some predicable hysteria from the usual suspects -- supporters of informed consent laws. But that's been the minority.

Even yesterday I was kind of looking online to see if I could find who is really the negative voice here, and it was surprisingly difficult for me to find that.

We've gotten these amazing heartfelt emails from women who have had abortions. There was a woman who had written to us and said she was forced to watch this video and receive a copy of her ultrasound and just felt that her value and judgment was question by the government. She paid out of pocket. She felt completely marginalized and disrespected. She said this letter gives her hope and makes her feel comforted know that other women potentially don't have to endure that.

We've also received a handful of responses from self-identified Christians who have said, "This is something I have a problem with in my faith. It's incredible that the Satanic Temple are the people doing the right and fair thing. I am ashamed of what the church has been doing."

This idea that women are followers of Satan because they do "sinful things" is a common narrative. People who don't fall in line with the majority voice are "bad." And that's part of what the Satanic Temple represents. The people who aren't valued because their voice is different.

We want to say it's not shameful to be a satanist. And there's nothing wrong with demanding that your body be respected and that you have control over it.

This campaign clearly exploits the government's deference to faith claims when it comes to following the law. But does the Satanic Temple want our laws to be more satanic or do you want to get religion out of government? 

I don't know that we have an end goal. And either way, really, we are interested in representing marginalized groups. We certainly feel that we would all be better off without religious encroachment in our public life. Because in America we have diversity of faith and belief. We are disturbed by how only one of those is often granted privileges.

Given the current state of things, given those dominant religious voices that we're hearing right now, it is still infinitely better that a diversity of faiths and beliefs are respected and granted rights and privileges, rather than letting one set of beliefs co-opt the authority of the government.

A lot of organizations have worked hard to get religion out of the government, and I think that it's clear that it's not necessarily working. So there's other alternatives.

The informed consent law in South Dakota requires doctors to tell their patients that having an abortion "will terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique living human being" and increase their risk of "suicide ideation and suicide." There is a real element of theater to how these antiabortion laws are framed and written. Do you think it's odd that so many people take those laws seriously while dismissing your organization as spectacle?  

I have been reading through these documents in the last few weeks, and I am continuously appalled by the language and the logic of these laws. I think again, it's that religious privilege and there's a comfort with that kind of dominant voice. There is a huge element that is a power play. People feel powerless against these strong voices that have political power, who have influence in our communities, who have money.

Things like that happen all of the time, but they don't get the media attention. They don't seem to be treated as seriously offensive. It's often downplayed because it's seen as for the greater good, or for the voice of justice or what is right.

That is only one view. We hope to add to that conversation. I think it's hard for people to take the Satanic Temple seriously until you look at the other voices, the political theater, that has never had this kind of challenge in their own domain before.

Is there something you feel like the public doesn't understand about the Satanic Temple and satanists? 

The biggest misconception is that we're not sincere. People tend to think this is a joke. But we are very sincere, and this is really incredibly important to the people who are involved.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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