Is trolling public displays of religion a good idea?

The Satanic Temple and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (Or Pastafarians for short) are examples of non-religious groups adopting religious symbolism in order to highlight the importance of separation of church and state by showing that if you allow one religion into the public sphere, then you have to allow every religion, even parody ones. The Satanic Temple has been particularly effective in rolling back attempts to plant Ten Commandments and other monuments on public land, by demanding that their own statue of Baphomet be placed as well, because of the requirement that government entities be neutral with regard to religions

But Ian Millhiser suggeststhat this kind of trolling of religion may not be an altogether good thing, since the Supreme Court may at some point rule against them.

The question, however, is whether the courts — including a Supreme Court that has sometimes been very unsympathetic to minority religions — will allow these tactics to continue. Eventually, it is likely that a state or local government that’s targeted by Pastafarians or Satanists will bring a case all the way to the justices. And the Court’s current majority could be sympathetic to such a government.

The open question is whether the Supreme Court’s increasingly conservative majority will allow groups like the Satanic Temple and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to invoke the doctrine of neutrality. And there are early signs that it might not.

The Court’s majority, in other words, is giving off mixed signals about how they feel about the rule of neutrality. But there are good reasons for secularists to worry that the rule may not be enforced in the future. Indeed, it’s possible that the efforts of groups like the Satanic Temple could sour the Court’s new majority on neutrality.

If they are willing to tolerate inferior treatment of Muslims, imagine what they are likely to think about Satanists.

I think this concern is misplaced. If there are justices who wish to ditch the principle of neutrality, they will find some way to do it because Christians are always pushing the limits in their demand that Christianity be given a special place in the US. The Satanists and Pastafarians are performing a valuable service in educating the public about where mixing government and religion can lead. As Millhiser acknowledges:

It is likely that the biggest impact of the Satanic Temple’s activism is all the displays that were not erected and all the legislative sessions that were not opened with a prayer. After all, if a state government decides to use taxpayer dollars to celebrate Christianity, it risks having Baphomet come along for the ride.


  1. John Morales says

    … by showing that if you allow one religion into the public sphere, then you have to allow every religion, even parody ones

    Also showing that those parody religions are no more silly than the more traditional ones.

  2. says

    I could see trying to lead a prayer to Mary in order to piss off Protestants, although not being raised Catholic I would have to learn one first.

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    This isn’t criticism of Satanist tactics, it is criticism of the Supreme Court.

  4. says

    @Reginald Selkirk:

    Agreed. Also, I have to say that if SCOTUS gave up on neutrality that would open the door for new laws and constitutional amendments. Too much is at risk. Once neutrality goes, how do the Catholics know that their rights will be respected in Savannah? Or the evangelicals that their rights will be respected in Boston?

    I’m not saying that it would be a good thing to sacrifice only to get it back in a more explicit (and thus undeniable) form a couple decades later (plus how do you get more explicit than “shall make no law”?), but I trust even the worst SCOTUS justices to be aware that dropping neutrality leads to an inevitable backlash against the court AND wins a non-neutral system only for a couple decades at best.

    I mean, look at Ireland and the anti-abortion provision of their constitution. It was brought into being by a democratic process amending the constitution after a nationwide vote of the general plebiscite. The results were bad (and I’m not saying that they were worth it) but a couple decades later public opinion has completely reversed itself AND the church lost power and credibility on many other issues as well.

    While on abortion, I think SCOTUS is willing to risk it and throw abortion rights in the trash. On religious neutrality…? I’m not sure. But if they do, they will surely suffer politically, reputationally, and historically. And they’ll deserve the fuck out of it.

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