Last week The Satanic Temple, a religious organization and political activist group, issued an announcement stating that they would be pursuing a court case against the state of Missouri’s strict anti-abortion laws. The specific claim of the organization’s case is aiming to fight for the religious freedom of their members, specifically how it was violated in 2015 with regards to a member attempting to have an abortion and being turned away. This case is among a growing trend of court cases citing religious freedom as an explanation for certain acts and events, and while there certainly is an argument to be made for this perspective, the question remains: how do we really define religious freedom?
While the name may fool most people, The Satanic Temple is not a group of Satan worshipers; in fact, they do not advocate for any belief in Satan whatsoever. The group is actually much better known for their political affiliations, rather than their religious beliefs. The organization’s mission is grounded in the idea that people should promote common sense, have empathy towards others, and “reject tyrannical authority.” (https://thesatanictemple.com/pages/learn) Overall, none of these beliefs seem very radical or unexpected, and really seem to align with how most people would view an ideal world. However, one of the tenets of The Satanic Temple claims that, “one’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone,” which immediately raises some concerns when regarding the weighted topic of abortion.
The Satanic Temple has had specific problems with this tenet with regards to one member’s attempt to get an abortion. In 2015, Mary Doe, a member of The Satanic Temple and a resident of the state of Missouri, visited a Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis seeking an abortion, but was turned away and told to wait for 3 days on account of Missouri’s “informed consent” law. Doe then proceeded to present the doctor at the clinic with a note explaining her exemption from the law due to her religious beliefs, but was turned away again with claims that her note made no difference. (https://medium.com/@JexBlackmore/missouri-court-to-hear-landmark-case-on-satanic-temple-abortion-e950fdf48e39)
The informed consent law requires that a woman wait at least 72 hours after deciding to have an abortion before the procedure actually be done. During this waiting period, patients are supposed to review a mandatory booklet about informed consent, and there have been reports that many patients are subjected to anti-abortion propaganda. However, with a claim to religious freedom, The Satanic Temple is arguing that Doe was wrongly sent away.
According to The Satanic Temple’s beliefs, a person’s body is their own to do with what they wish, and their choices should be governed by scientific fact. According to both of these tenets, Mary Doe’s claim that her religion exempts her from the Informed Consent law is perfectly valid under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which works to provide checks and balances regarding whether a person’s First Amendment rights to freedom of religion have been violated. However, the Missouri state government is refuting claims that the RFRA applies here because according to them, Doe was not acting on religious beliefs. Instead, they think Doe only disagreed with the law for personal reasons, rather than being motivated by her Satanist views.
This case begs the question; how can one claim religious freedom? While anyone can claim exemption from certain laws due to their beliefs, how can someone make the judgement call of what the true motivation is, as the state of Missouri is claiming to do here? While it is impossible to prove that Doe was not motivated by her religion, the state’s tactic of doing so attempts to discredit her beliefs and The Satanic Temple as a whole. It should not be the state’s right to claim that just because the beliefs of The Satanic Temple do not align with their law, that it is not a religion and subject to religious freedom. However, with the stance they are taking in court, they are effectively saying that this system of beliefs in a not a real religion at all.
While there is no definite answer to the question of what constitutes religious freedom and when it can be enacted as exemption from certain laws, this problem cannot be solved by claiming a belief system does not qualify as a religion. As a country based on freedom, religious or otherwise, the stance that the state of Missouri is taking in this court case is acting directly against the ideals that the United States was built on. If we want to continue to claim that our country has freedom for all its citizens, then we must start recognizing that while our beliefs may not be the same, they are still all equal in validity.
Emma Hungaski is the associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.