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May 02, 2023

Lehigh Valley school district must allow after school club run by Satanic group, federal judge rules

Saucon Valley leaders tried to rescind their approval of the group after receiving backlash from the community. The court decided it is protected by the First Amendment

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Saucon Valley Satan Club Street View/Google Maps

The After School Satan Club will be permitted to gather at Saucon Valley Middle School after a federal judge determined the group is protected from religious discrimination by the First Amendment.

An after school club connected to a group that embraces the virtues of Satan can continue to operate in the Saucon Valley School District, a federal judge ruled Monday.

The After School Satan Club is run by The Satanic Temple, a religious organization that promotes free speech, scientific inquiry and individual liberties. The temple's ideals are rooted in secular humanism. It advocates against hate groups, corporal punishment in public schools and religiously motivated attempts to restrict reproductive rights.

The temple's after school clubs, which have popped up in various districts in the U.S., allow students to participate in community service projects, nature-based activities, games, and arts and crafts.

The school district in Lehigh County had approved the temple's application to rent space at a middle school in February, but rescinded the approval after a social media campaign promoting the club violated the district's social media policy. Saucon Valley leaders claimed the social media posts prompted backlash from parents, community members and others who mistakenly believed the club was sponsored by the school district.

The district further said it had received an anonymous voicemail from a person threatening to "shoot up the school" due to it permitting the After School Satan Club. The club's approval was revoked because its permission slips to join didn't explicitly state that it was not district-sponsored, the district said.

After Saucon Valley prohibited the club, a lawsuit was filed in March on behalf of The Satanic Temple by the ACLU, the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia-based lawfirm Dechert LLP. The suit contended that the club's activities are protected by the First Amendment.

The lawsuit argued that the First Amendment does not allow the government to give preferential treatment to one religious group over another, even if a group's beliefs are unpopular.

Judge John M. Gallagher, of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, wrote in his ruling that the Satantic Temple's free speech rights must be protected.

"When confronted with a challenge to free speech, the government's first instinct must be to forward expression rather than quash it. Particularly when the content is controversial or inconvenient," Gallagher wrote. "Nothing less is consistent with the expressed purpose of American government to secure the core, innate rights of its people."

June Everett, the Satanic Temple's director of after school programming, applauded the decision.

"This is welcome news for Saucon Valley students and families seeking to participate in the supportive and inclusive community provided by ASSC meetings," Everett said. "The ruling affirms that schools may not discriminate against groups on the basis of their beliefs or faith. The district must allow all qualified organizations to use district facilities, even if some in the community object."

The federal court ruling in Pennsylvania follows a similar decision in February over the After School Satan Club's chapter at school district in Virginia. The Satantic Temple was supported by the ACLU in that case, too.

The Satanic Temple says it promotes the virtues of benevolence, empathy, critical thinking, problem solving, creative expression, personal sovereignty and compassion. The group, founded in 2013, is distinct from the Church of Satan, which was founded in the 1960s by former carnival worker Anton LaVey, author of "The Satanic Bible." The Church of Satan is also monotheistic, but its activities are more rooted in occult rituals and a membership hierarchy based on meritocracy.

Last year, students at Garnet Valley School District in Delaware County successfully lobbied to have the district alter its dress code to allow clothing promoting the local Satanic Delco congregation. The district had prohibited clothing with Satanic or cultic references. A similar dress code was eliminated the year prior in the Rose Tree Media School District, also in Delaware County.

Sara Rose, deputy legal director the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said the ruling in the Saucon Valley School District case reinforces The Satantic Temple's Constitutional rights.

"This ruling sends a powerful message that the First Amendment protects the viewpoints and beliefs of all people and faiths," Rose said. "When a school district opens up its facilities, it cannot discriminate based on religious beliefs. This ruling reinforces the principle of equal access and ensures that all views have a fair opportunity to be expressed."