After-school Satan club tests the limits of church and state
At most schools, band practice, sports, drama and the chess club are the options that kids choose from for their after-school activities. But in 2016, students at Point Defiance Elementary School in Tacoma, Washington, also had the opportunity to join an After School Satan Club.
Portrayed through much of history as the evil nemesis of humanity, a new movement sees Satan more as a literary symbol of rebellion than the scriptural Prince of Darkness.
These modern-day Satanists say they are trying to fight what they see as the encroachment of evangelical Christianity in places they say it doesn’t belong — such as public schools.
Last year, these Satanists ignited a debate about who gets to decide what a religion is, and the place of faith in public schools.
A teen among the Satanists
After a lot of hullabaloo about the club being on the grounds of Port Defiance Elementary, a young girl named Veronica (we’re not using her last name for privacy reasons) ended up being the only kid who joined.
“I am 11, I will be turning 12 on August 9th. My friend is a week older than me because she's on July 28,” she says.
Veronica’s pretty cool. She likes anime, and goes to comic-book conventions.
"You want to explore, and you want to ask the hard questions that maybe your teachers or parents are not willing to answer." —Erin Botello
She’s also very particular about what kind of music she likes.
“Dark cabaret music,” she says, confidently. “Electro swing. Basically, a whole variety, including heavy metal. I really hate listening to mainstream pop, stuff drives me insane. I really don't like it.”
Believe it or not, Veronica first heard about the club from her mom, who has strong feelings about evangelical Christianity.
She wanted her daughter to learn an alternative point of view.
“I was like ok, I'll try it, and see if it's fun,” Veronica says. “And it is!”
Erin Botello is Veronica’s After School Satan Club educator, and a member of the Satanic Temple in Seattle.
“Veronica is our only student,” she says. “She has come to every meeting that we have held ... She is fierce. She has a great head on her shoulders, she also has a very supportive family who also shows up with her to the meetings.”
So, what would an 11-year old kid learn in an After School Satan Club? Sorcery? Spells? How to be evil?
Actually, it doesn’t sound anything like what you might think.
They talk about evolution, and, “we had a whole lesson plan on gender roles,” Botello explains, “in that there are not only feminine and masculine genders, but there are genders that are neither, or both.”
“Basically, I get to learn a whole lot, and it's really cool,” Veronica gushes.
“You want to explore, and you want to ask the hard questions that maybe your teachers or parents are not willing to answer, such as, ‘What if I don't believe in God?’” Botello says. “An After School Satan Club educator can answer that question and say, ‘That's okay. There's still a place for you.’”
A vital message
Ultimately, Botello says the After School Satan Club wants to counter what it sees as a dangerous trend in public schools—after-school programs sponsored by Christian-evangelical groups.
And one group in particular: the Good News Club.
There are 78,000 Good News Clubs worldwide, and millions of children attend.
"[O]ur very existence and our very presence at the school poses the question of, do we allow all, or do we allow none?" —Erin Botello
A promotional video for the Good News Club claims that it’s “an exciting opportunity for elementary age kids to participate in an engaging and uplifting after school program … All kids are welcome to join in on the fun in a safe environment where they can make new friends, play games, sing songs and learn the good news about Jesus Christ.”
That stated purpose doesn’t sit so well with Botello and other members of the Satanic Temple, who say it’s morally irresponsible to evangelize young people.
To protest, they started their own after school clubs — in Portland Oregon, Taylorsville, Utah and the one in Tacoma, Washington.
Though they have far fewer clubs than their Good News counterparts, the Satanists have set out to prove a point.
“In this country,” says Botello, “we have a separation of church and state. And therefore, public schools should not support a religious club being on their property even if it is after hours. So, the After School Satan club, our very existence and our very presence at the school poses the question of: do we allow all, or do we allow none?”
The Satanists say in their ideal world, there would be no religion on school grounds.
But Moises Estevez, the Vice President of International Ministries for the Child Evangelism Fellowship, which runs the Good News Club, says the organization carries a vital message for young people to hear.
“We believe that it's important to teach the children about God and about the forgiveness that Christ offers us in that time in their lives when their hearts are open to learn about God.” Estevez says. “And before life and the challenges and the difficulties of life have taken their toll.”
You may be wondering (like I was) — why?
Why are eitherof these clubs — the After School Satan Club, and the Good News Club — allowed in public schools at all? What happened to all the rules about the separation of church and state?
"[T]hey made a decision on a vote 6 to 3 that it is constitutional for Good News Clubs to take place on public school property, after the last bell rings." —Moises Estevez, Child Evangelism Fellowship
It all started with a court case 16 years ago at the Milford Central School in upstate New York. The case tested the limits of freedom of religion, versus separation of church and state.
Initially, the school board said a Bible and prayer group for elementary school children could not meet on school grounds. They feared that allowing the club would be unconstitutional.
Then the Supreme Court heard the case in 2001.
“And on June of that year,” says Estevez, “they made a decision on a vote 6 to 3 that it is constitutional for Good News Clubs to take place on public school property, after the last bell rings, and they cannot be discriminated against just because their content is religious content.”
The Satanic Temple says it’s also a religion: a non-theistic religion. And so they argue that under this court case, they also have the right to be Point Defiance Elementary School. The Tacoma, Washington, school board agreed.
That made a lot of parents and community members upset, especially members of the Christian community. They protested the club’s arrival to Point Defiance in December of 2016.
Shout at the Devil
Bishop Michael Doss is one of the people concerned about what children might learn from the After School Satan Club.
He’s been a pastor at the Deliverance House of Prayer Baptist Church in Tacoma for the last 21 years.
He’s also a parent, and his son attends Point Defiance Elementary School.
“We’ve got to go down to the school board and let them know that we are still not satisfied,” he preached one Sunday to a small congregation nestled into a rented room of a Tacoma community center. “They’ve got those crazy folks down there at Point Defiance, the Satanic Club, at an elementary school. We’ve got to stand against that!”
Doss heard about the After School Satan Club when one of his pastor friends called to tell him about it.
“Well first I thought it was a joke,” he says. “I thought, Tacoma schools is not going to allow that. And then we went through the law, and the law said for them not to be discriminated against, that they’re allowed in the schools just like a Christian club.”
That bothered Doss, who considers Satan an altogether more serious matter.
“We know the Devil, yes. He's real, like God is real,” he says. “And they don't have any business being in anybody's school, especially the babies starting in the kindergarten to fifth grade.”
He says, even if you say you’re not evil, why use Satan’s name? Why go there, even if it’s just to prove a point?
“I believe that they are Satanic people, and they do worship the devil, and their symbols show that they worship the devil,” Doss says. “So we have to stand against them, we have to fight against them, and we will win, because we have the power, not them.”
It’s time to take a step back and ask, who are these “Satanists”? Are they really
"Well first I thought it was a joke. I thought, Tacoma schools is not going to allow that. And then we went through the law, and the law said for them not to be discriminated against." —Bishop Michael Doss
Devil-worshipping cult members and a danger to innocent children? Or are they just well-intentioned people — safe to be around kids like Veronica?
It’s about 2 p.m. on a Sunday, and the official monthly meeting for the Seattle Chapter of the Satanic Temple has begun. About two dozen people of various ages (and hair colors) have crowded into a small living room in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle.
There’s lots of black worn in this group and plenty of tattoos and piercings. One man wears a t-shirt that says: “Christianity Is Stupid.”
But there are also some people there who look like they’d be more likely to offer you their spot on line in the grocery store than sacrifice an unwilling victim to Lucifer.
Today, they are planning a demonstration at a local Planned Parenthood to counter pro-life activism.
“So our meetings are very much in the style of an activist planning group,” says Lilith Starr, the founder of the Satanic Temple’s Seattle chapter. “We do try to have a lot of community potlucks, walks around Green Lake, you know, times that members can hang out with each other socially.”
Starr says members are more like devilish pranksters than devil worshippers.
“The number one misunderstanding is that we actually believe in and worship the devil. So that is absolutely not the case,” she says. “For us, Satan is a symbol, he's a literary symbol from John Milton's Paradise Lost, where Satan was the literary figure that stood up to tyranny, to religious tyranny.”
In other words, they look to Satan not as a model for evil, but as a way to stand up to authority.
“The majority of what we do is activism in terms of church and state separation, religion in schools, religion on the football field at a high school,” Starr says.
The Satanic Temple is a national organization known for controversial publicity stunts. So when a Christian group does something they think blurs the line between church and state, they do the same thing, too, but in a far more provocative way.
Like in 2015, when they tried to erect a statue of the pagan idol Baphomet, in order to protest a Ten Commandments monument that was going up at the Oklahoma State Capitol building.
Eventually, in part because of those actions, the Ten Commandments monument was never built.
Starr says all kinds of people come to the Satanic Temple—from pagans to
"I didn’t have to look outside myself for something that would fix me. Whatever I needed was inside me." —Lillith Starr, Satanic Temple of Seattle
atheists, from to secular humanists to former Christians.
In her own life, Starr was looking for a different spiritual path after a 17-year struggle with drug addiction.
“My life just got darker and darker,” she tells me. “I lost the car. I lost the house. I lost the jobs, multiple jobs. I lost my marriage at that time.”
She first tried Narcotics Anonymous, but as an atheist, the emphasis on a higher power just wasn’t working for her.
Then she discovered the message of independent thought that this new brand of Satanism teaches.
“I didn't have to look outside myself for something that would fix me,” she says. “Whatever I needed was inside me, and that was the lesson that Satanism taught me.”
You could almost say “Satan saved” her. Satan the rebel works for her.
She’s even named herself after another controversial character — Lilith, Adam’s first wife in Jewish folklore.
In some writings, she’s a demon — and in others, she was cast out of Eden because she refused to submit to Adam.
Starr insists that the Satanic Temple isn’t just playing “devil’s advocate” to the Christian right.
She says they’re a real religion, too.
“We get a lot of people who think, oh, you know, we're just atheists making fun of the religious right. We're just dressing up and pretending to be Satanists.” Starr says.
“But that's definitely not the case. This is a very deeply held set of beliefs for us. This is our religion,” she says. “It has a set of core beliefs. It has a shared symbol and a shared narrative. And those are things that are really personally meaningful for us.”
Like other religions, it has its own rituals.
“For instance, after every meeting, we close with an invocation, where we pass around slices of apples,” she says.
Perhaps Starr’s experience with the Satanic Temple proves that religion is truly in the eye of the beholder.
For other people, maybe the group is just a means to an end — to make society aware of the lines we cross when religion finds its way into the public sphere.
As for Veronica, she still hasn’t told her friends about the After School Satan Club.
She’s worried they’ll get the wrong idea.
“I actually don’t tell them, so no one can really judge me,” she says. “It's like, I'm just a little scared to say the names and they are like ‘What, you're worshipping Satan? ... Just because I like some dark things, like skulls and sometimes listening to Edgar Allan Poe poems, no! And just because I like the design of a pentacle, no! I do not worship him.”
If the Satanic Temple has their way, more children — at Point Defiance and all over the country — will be attending After-School Satan Clubs.
It’s likely the resistance from concerned parents and community members won’t go away.
In any case, Veronica started middle school this year and so, she won’t be able to attend.
But she says she wishes she could.
Correction: Point Defiance Elementary School will not be offering an After School Satan Club for the 2017-18 school year due to a lack of available educators from the Satanic Temple, the sponsor of the club. We incorrectly stated that the club would be offered again in 2017-18.
Clarification: Veronica, the student in this story, was not a student at the Point Defiance school, but rather at another school in the Tacoma Public Schools district.