Tomorrow, Feb. 03, the Phoenix, AZ City Council is scheduled to vote on a last minute item added to their agenda in a frenzied state of emergency. The intolerable prospect of a Satanic invocation, scheduled to open the Feb. 17 Council meeting, has pitched some Council members into panicked desperation, furiously grasping for any possible legal recourse with which to block the invocation and ensure no such “problems” of a similar kind may arise again.
The City of Phoenix has a longstanding practice of allowing invocations to precede their formal City Council meetings and, of course, it’s a basic truism of Constitutional Law that the City cannot favor any one voice over another in the public forum. This grade-school knowledge has embarrassingly elluded the very people who should be most keenly aware of its value: public officials who are charged with the very task of maintaining an environment of dispassionate Constitutional pluralism.
Amid the proposed justifications for discrimination and absurd ploys being forwarded by superstitiously affrighted Council members, it appears there can be only one of 3 possible outcomes following tomorrow's meeting:
The Council moves to block The Satanic Temple (TST) from giving the invocation of Feb. 17 by a change of policy which introduces prohibitive and discriminatory new standards, whereupon we will file a lawsuit in defense of our basic liberties (and we will almost certainly win).
The Council moves to accept that TST has as much a right to deliver an invocation as any other voice of religious opinion (including non-belief), whereupon Religious Freedom is upheld.
The Council moves to shut down the invocation policy altogether, opting instead for a moment of silence, or perhaps just a simple resolve to preserve the City Chambers for the purposes of City Management, rather than questions of religious significance.
As option number 3 becomes increasingly more appealing amidst growing controversy, media has begun casting a suspicious eye toward The Satanic Temple asking if, perhaps, we didn’t just want to shut down the invocation forum from the very beginning. As we’ve often explained of our presence in public forums, we’re neither fighting solely for our presence in the public square, nor are we fighting to have public religious forums shut down. In fact, Templars are of varying opinion regarding which of those is the prefered outcome. What we’re fighting against is a situation in which one religious voice assumes a place of privilege with Government sanction.
Every time we’ve entered the public forums, we’ve been perfectly clear: We will never seek to impose our voice in secular spaces where there is not already an issue of religious breach across the Church-State divide.
Nor are we acting punitively. We’re acting responsibly.
When one religious voice enjoys a State-sanctioned platform, the inclusion of multiple, sometimes opposing, voices establishes a democratic marketplace of ideas. It becomes a demonstration of pluralism and religious liberty in action. Anything else stinks of exclusive privilege and theocratic over-reach. Our public displays, invocations, and actions seek to complement and contrast pre-existing activities of a similar kind. No doubt, much trouble could be avoided if the Government could stay out of the religious question altogether, but once the forum is open to one voice, we see it as a duty to add our own.
Clear as this position has been made, it often strikes some as altogether too political to be considered “religious” -- as though the two had been so neatly mutually exclusive till TST’s troublesome interloping. In fact, I feel it’s well past time that those who express concern regarding TST’s “real” intentions begin looking at situations like the one now playing out in Phoenix for what they openly reveal about the intentions of our opposition. If one applies the same scrutiny that is often brought to bear on TST back upon our outraged detractors, similar questions seem all the more relevant.
We’re asked if our bids for inclusion are meant to provoke and offend the religious. Is it not at least as reasonable to ask if the insistence upon opening the forum to religious invocations in the first place was part of an intentional effort to provoke and offend the non-religious, or those of minority faiths? Why the impulse to add a mainstream religious voice to Government proceedings? Surely, it is not at all difficult to find a Christian Church where such messages are expected, appropriate, and run no risk of imposition upon those of differing views.
We’re asked if we simply intended to have the forum for invocations shut down. Is it not at least as reasonable to question whether or not the City Council of Phoenix intended from the outset to act as arbiter of what constitutes “legitimate” religious speech when they decided to allow for invocations to open their formal meetings? And how is it that the Council failed to consider the possibility that a situation such as this might arise? Did they lack foresight, or are they ignorant regarding basic Constitutional principles? Which is worse?
Last week, I listened to an Arizona-based radio broadcast that had, as a guest, Stu de Haan, a representative of TST who, with Michelle Shortt, intends to deliver the invocation of Feb. 17. As typical with talk-radio bloviators, unlettered opinions were sputtered out with thoughtless indignation. One host opined that the City of Phoenix only approved TST’s invocation because they are “spineless.” Stu asked if, in order to display courage, it was incumbent upon the Council to commit a Constitutional violation. The host grudgingly asserted that TST had “found a loophole” by which we entered the invocation roster. Stu, naturally, explained that there was no exploitation of a “loophole” at all, rather, ours is a very straightforward application of First Amendment rights.
Some Council members, too, have asserted that only through a lack of courage, on the part of attorneys and other public officials, will TST be allowed to go forward with the invocation. In fact, I see the exact opposite to be true. It takes courage and fortitude to stand for Freedom of Speech when that speech is disagreeable to you. It takes courage and fortitude to stand for Freedom of Religion when the religious expression in question is offensive to you. It takes courage to stand for the liberties of another even when to do so is inconvenient or unpopular.
To use one’s public office as a self-serving position from which to advance personal interests is venal, corrupt, and altogether spineless. To think, it only took a basic assertion of rights on our part to lay such qualities bare in the Phoenix Council Chambers. Let us hope the people of Phoenix, regardless of religious persuasion, recognize the spineless for who they truly are. No matter the outcome of tomorrow’s meeting, the people of Phoenix deserve better than a local Government that seeks to define for them the legitimacy of their religious views.
As to the question of which of the 3 options listed above is preferable to The Satanic Temple… any one will do.
No matter what comes tomorrow, victory is already ours.
E Pluribus Unum