For two straight weeks this summer I noticed something odd when I dropped my step daughter off at day camp. Although the facility that hosted the camp was run by Prince George’s County, Maryland—a government entity—loud gospel music was constantly blaring from camp speakers.
I wasn't personally offended, but it bothered me that it didn't seem to occur to the camp administrators that not everyone using that facility is Christian. And, is it really appropriate for government-run facilities to spread religious messages?
That was on my mind when I read that a group calling themselves the Satanic Temple of New York City is planning to start After School Satan Clubs in multiple elementary schools around the country, including one in Prince George’s County.
A visit to their website showed that the Satanic Temple is a protest organization whose stated mission is 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 guided by the individual will.”
One way the group says they pursue their mission is to oppose evangelism in schools and other public places. The after-school clubs are an attempt to counter the influence of the Good News Clubs run by the Child Evangelism Fellowship, a Christian fundamentalist organization that seeks to influence schoolchildren as young as five.
Counter to the images evoked by the word “Satan,” the After School Satan Clubs’ actual programming appears quite benign. According to their materials, each meeting includes activities designed to teach kids critical reasoning, problem solving, and creative expression. They emphasize the importance of letting kids know they can make up their own minds about whatever information they receive, and help kids understand how people come to know and believe what they do. Compare that with the stated purpose of the Good News Clubs:
“to evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and establish (disciple) them in the Word of God and in a local church for Christian living.”
In a society where Christianity is the dominant religion, and where religious belief is privileged over non-belief, anything featuring the word “Satan” is going to provoke a strong response. The name is no doubt intended to force administrators to consider the broader question of religious freedom and tolerance in schools. I wondered how Prince George’s County officials would react to that provocation.
I reached out to the school district’s Office of Communications for comment, and was told they had no further comment other than the press statement they had already released on the subject. A similar statement also appears on the Bradbury Heights Elementary School website, the school that currently hosts a Good News Club and is considering an After School Satan Club. The press release reads:
"PGCPS regularly receives requests from groups – academic, civic, religious and nonprofit—to rent our school and administrative buildings through our facilities usage procedures. On Monday, August 1, 2016, The Satanic Temple of New York City requested permission to host an After School Satan Club for elementary-age children at Bradbury Heights Elementary School…
We are aware that parents have expressed concerns regarding The Satanic Temple and the After School Satan Club. Notwithstanding those concerns, PGCPS officials will review the group’s request according to Administrative Procedure 1330 (After School Use of Facilities) and the Flyers and Materials Distribution Guidelines applicable to all organizations.
Please be aware that neither Prince George’s County Public Schools nor the Prince George’s County Board of Education sponsors or endorses The Satanic Temple or the After School Satan Club. Moreover, parental permission is required for all afterschool activities."
Not reassuring, for supporters of the Establishment clause.
The district’s overriding concern appears to be assuring concerned Christian parents that the district maintains no relationship with the Satanic Temple—not that they prioritize the rights of all students to learn in an environment free of religious influence. Nowhere in their press release do they acknowledge that there may be community members and families like mine, who are more concerned about maintaining the separation of church and state than the possibility of a club with the word “Satan” in the title.
The Satanic Temple club organizers say they are looking to offer their after-school program in schools where the Good News Clubs have been allowed to establish themselves. One such club does exist (or at least, existed at one time) at Bradbury Heights Elementary, but I can find no evidence that they were given the same scrutiny.
If schools really want to be welcoming and supportive of all students and families, school districts can’t give preferential treatment to one religion—or to the exercise of religion over the right not to follow any religion at all.
They also have to do a better job of demonstrating to the public, and especially to the students in their charge, that they are actually considering the merits of any program that is presented to them, versus reacting fearfully to that program’s name, and the potential for controversy.