How do you protect the First Amendment’s absolute right to believe what you choose? It is an extraordinary right, but one that gets little attention because Americans assume it as their right, no debate needed. But Americans who think there should be such an absolute right need to start paying attention to the Satanic Temple’s push to ensure this right retains its vitality. The Satanic Temple’s mission is in the spirit of and builds on the pioneering litigation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 1940s. All those who seek to protect this cherished right should be getting in line behind the Satanic Temple.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses led the way to flesh out the First Amendment’s principle of the absolute right to believe with Cantwell v. Connecticut, wherein they argued for the right to proselytize without having to obtain a discretionary license. Three Jehovah’s Witnesses were arrested for playing records of their beliefs, largely directed at Roman Catholics and in Roman Catholic neighborhoods, without first obtaining a license, which would have been issued at the discretion of government officials. They won. The thrust of the decision was that the government may not prescribe or prohibit belief, and that government officials may not pre-screen religious messages, because the First Amendment “forestalls compulsion by law of the acceptance of any creed or the practice of any form of worship. “
The Jehovah’s Witnesses also are responsible for the landmark opinion in West Virginia State Bd of Educ v. Barnette in which they argued for the right of their children not to have to salute the flag or recite the Pledge, which violated their faith. They won the right to have their children exempted from such mandatory observances. One memorable line eloquently summarizes the absolute right to believe:
If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.
Enter the Satanic Temple, which I discussed here. Conservative religiously motivated organizations in the United States have been very politically active for the last 40 years or so, and they have succeeded in imprinting their beliefs on various forms of legislation, not the least of which includes a mountain of legislation to deter women from obtaining abortions (and more recently, contraception).
The recent religiously-fueled anti-abortion statutes have included the Texas statute recently held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which used a veneer of medical-sounding justifications to shut down as many clinics as possible in the state. They also succeeded in putting a Missouri statute in place that requires women seeking an abortion to read a state-sponsored tract that declares “life begins at conception” and that a fetus is “a separate, unique, living human being,” invites women to view the fetus via ultrasound, with the state labeling parts of the fetus, and forces women to wait 72 hours after they have read the state literature.
In a case filed nine months ago, a district court summarized the Satanic Temple’s beliefs as follows:
Plaintiffs’ religious beliefs (the “Satanic Tenets”) are: A. A woman’s body is inviolable and subject to her will alone; B. She makes decisions regarding her health based on the best scientific understanding of the world, even if the science does not comport with the religious or political beliefs of others; C. Human Tissue is part of her body; D. She alone decides whether to remove Human Tissue from her body; and E. She may, in good conscience, have Human Tissue removed from her body on demand and without regard to the current or future condition of the Human Tissue.
Adherents to the Satanic Tenets do not believe the Missouri Tenets are true. Specifically, they do not believe: A. The life of a human being begins at conception; B. Abortion terminates “the life of a separate, unique, living human being;” or C. The removal of Human Tissue from a woman’s body is morally wrong.
The Missouri Tenets and Missouri Lectionary are irrelevant to adherents to the Satanic Tenets in making a decision to get an abortion because they believe Human Tissue can be removed from their bodies on demand and, in good conscience, without regard to the current or future condition of the Human Tissue. Neither the Missouri Tenets nor the Missouri Lectionary is medically necessary for an adherent to the Satanic Tenets or any other woman to make an informed decision to get an abortion.
The Satanic Temple in Satanic Temple v. Jeremiah “Jay” Nixon argues that the state tract and waiting period violated Mary Doe’s First Amendment rights because it constituted forced reading and meditation on religious beliefs with which she disagrees.
This is Barnette in the abortion context.
There is no persuasive secular justification for the state’s declaration of when life begins; that has been and always will be a theological tenet. Akin to the question of what happens after death. These are the very foundations of most religions. This requirement does not even have the medical patina of the Texas law. How can Missouri force her to read such a tract when it plainly violates her faith? It is in reality no different from forcing her to read Bible excerpts.
The short answer at the moment is that the District Court recently confused this case with an abortion rights case. Judge Audrey dismissed the case based on lack of standing, because, “Plaintiff Doe is not now pregnant, there is no guaranty that she will become pregnant in the future, and that if she does, she will seek an abortion, thus, Plaintiffs’ injuries are not sufficiently concrete for the Court to order the requested relief.” This is truly a non-sequitur. Moreover, whether or not she is ever pregnant again, she was, so this is a classic constitutional violation that is “capable of repetition, yet evading review,” which makes it possible for women to sue for their right to abortion, but is also used in other cases including this Term.
The standing decision surely will be overturned. That will leave the Satanic Temple to get back to its mission of carrying on the legacy of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to protect Americans from government inculcation of belief. For all of those believers who are uncomfortable with the Satanic Temple’s beliefs, well, that’s what this is all about.