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PA school district must pay Satanists $200,000 after lawsuit over After School Satan Club
The Saucon Valley School District illegally blocked Satanists from meeting. They learned their lesson the hard way.
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In more excellent legal news this week, The Satanic Temple and Saucon Valley School District in Pennsylvania have reached a settlement regarding an After School Satan Club. It comes after the district banned the Satanists from using its facilities and held them to different standards from other extra-curricular clubs.
The settlement requires the district to give the Satanists the same access to buildings as any other group, prohibits district officials from retaliating against the Satanists based on their beliefs, and forces the district to pay the Satanists $200,000 in legal fees.
This comes six months after a federal judge ruled that the district was in the wrong.
In case you need a refresher, back in February, the After School Satan Club announced that it would soon hold meetings at Saucon Valley Middle School. That should have been perfectly fine, since ASS clubs do not promote Satan, Satanic beliefs, Satanism, or anything else like it. The Satanic Temple, which sponsors these groups, doesn’t even believe in a literal Satan. These groups aren’t interested in indoctrination. Rather, the Satanists “focus on free inquiry and rationalism, the scientific basis for which we know what we know about the world around us.” It’s like a science club with a devilish twist.
This flyer announcing the meetings gave people an indication of what they planned to do:
But on Tuesday, February 21, after the school board approved the club’s use of the space, someone left the district a voicemail basically threatening to cause harm if the Satanists were allowed to meet.
District officials were understandably worried and canceled all after-school activities that Tuesday. They also canceled all classes and activities the following day. That’s how disruptive the threat was. Superintendent Jaime Vlasaty also contacted police.
Then things took a weird turn.
Vlasaty said on that Wednesday that the district would “review” the “Satan Club’s [sic] use of our facility.”
Why? What did the Satanists have to do with any of this? No clue. They didn’t phone in the threat. They didn’t put kids in danger. They only launched the group in response to the Christian club that already existed at the middle school.
The review was completed by Friday, and Vlasaty said “she had rescinded approval for the club to use the facilities, due to violating district policy.”
“As a result of this violation, the educational programming and activities of the District has been significantly impacted and it has caused unequivocal disruption to the District’s daily operations.
“Our community has experienced chaos. Our students, staff and teachers have had to endure a threat to their safety and welfare. The gravity of feelings of instability, anxiety and fear have been profound.
“Aside from my decision to rescind approval, I implore the Saucon Valley community to eliminate threatening, hateful and divisive language and behavior, and make a commitment in supporting our students and reinforcing the values of our community.
The bottom line was that The Satanic Temple was being punished for what some unknown culprit did. It made no sense at all.
There was also an unintended consequence: The district inadvertently created a playbook for Christian terrorists to follow anytime there was an atheist or Satanic club meeting at a local school. Just call in a threat, mention the non-Christian group as your motivation, and watch the chaos unfold. It was a horrible precedent.
The school district could easily have said it was working with law enforcement to ensure the safety of all students and that extra security would be provided anytime students gathered for a (perfectly legal) meeting of the After School Satan club.
Banning The Satanic Temple gave an unearned victory to the person who called in the threat, not to mention the Christian group that would benefit from it.
Despite people saying all this for weeks, the district’s position didn’t budge, which led to the ACLU suing the school district on March 31.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, alleges that the SVSD’s refusal to grant the ASSC equal access to school facilities give a “heckler’s veto” to those who dislike the group’s religious viewpoint, even though the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from censoring speech based on the objections or reactions of others.
The lawsuit described a few important details that didn’t get any attention in earlier news articles.
One of the biggest issues involved a disclaimer saying the club wasn’t sponsored by the school district. The Satanists said they included that in the permission slip created for parents. Superintendent Vlasaty, however, told the Satanists that a social media posting advertising the club didn’t include the disclaimer… even though that posting wasn’t made by anyone employed by The Satanic Temple. (The group didn’t ask the person to post it, either.)
As for the permission slip, it was never even sent home. Vlasaty said “non-affiliated school organizations” weren’t allowed to do that. The problem with that argument is that the Good News Club was allowed to send home permission slips with kids. (Vlasaty told the Satanists the district policy “was not being followed by our building administrators consistently and has since been resolved”… which seemed all too convenient.)
As for the terrorist who made the threatening phone call, he was arrested in North Carolina in late February. The lawsuit sarcastically noted that there was “no evidence that the suspect might have refrained from his criminal actions if only TST had used a larger font size for its permission-slip disclaimer.”
Ultimately, the ACLU said, the district appeared to be looking for a reason—any reason—to get rid of the club:
In any event, as the District’s letter to TST and the D.A.’s statement make clear, the suspect was not upset because he mistakenly believed that the District was sponsoring the ASSC. Rather, he was angry with the District merely because the district had approved the ASSC’s use of school facilities.
There was also an interesting smoking gun: The lawsuit noted that the Good News Club never included the disclaimer that it wasn’t sponsored by the district in its material… until any of this became an issue:
Through at least February 23, 2023, the front/landing page for the Church’s website linked to a PDF of a permission slip with the file name “Good-News-Club-Permission-Slip-2023.” The permission slip was identical to the 2022 permission slip sent home with students, except that it stated that meetings would take place on “Thursdays for 6 weeks, Feb 23 through Mar 30.” Like the 2022 permission slip, the 2023 form did not have any explicit disclaimer of District sponsorship. The 2023 Good News Club permission slip, with no explicit disclaimer, remained on the Church’s website through at least February 27, 2023…
On information and belief, that permission slip remained on the church’s website until it was replaced by a PDF of a revised permission slip, which now includes an underlined disclaimer stating in red, “The Good News Club is not affiliated with the Saucon Valley School District in any way.” According to the PDF file’s metadata, the “Saucon Permission Slip spring 2023 revised” was not created until March 1, 2023, at 6:06 p.m.
It was a mic drop moment, buried deep within the document, suggesting the district applied different standards to the Christian and Satanist groups.
The lawsuit didn’t just point out how several ads for the Christian club, now deleted from social media, lacked the disclaimer. It said that was also true of non-religious clubs:
The District’s failure to enforce Policy 707 against other non-school organizations—in the same manner, and to the same extent, that it is purporting to enforce the Policy against TST—constitutes a preference for these organizations based on their viewpoints, resulting in further viewpoint discrimination against TST.
The District’s failure to enforce Policy 707 against the Good News Club—in the same manner, and to the same extent, that it is purporting to enforce the Policy against TST— constitutes a preference for the religion promoted by the Good News Club, resulting in further religious discrimination against TST.
The 37-page lawsuit offered a litany of examples revealing the double standards for how the district treated the Satanic club compared to the Christian club and other extra-curricular clubs. It called on a judge to force the district to make things right, both by reinstating the After School Satan club and paying any necessary costs and fines.
That’s what a judge did in March.
In his 37-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge John M. Gallagher said that the “District must permit the ASSC to meet at the location and on the dates upon which the parties contingently agreed… during the current school year.” However, he added that the district didn’t have to distribute the group’s permission slip to parents.
The defense of the First Amendment appeared right in the first paragraph:
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. Nothing less is consistent with the expressed purpose of American government to secure the core, innate rights of its people.
One interesting part of the ruling was that the judge pointed out that the backlash against the Satanists was not because of the “mistaken belief” that the group was sponsored by the district, but rather because it was allowed to meet at all.
Gallagher also mentioned how the Good News Club itself had to sue in order to meet in public schools, which is ironic, given that the Satanists were now using the same logic to promote their own group. (“The facts here are strikingly similar.”)
Ultimately, he wrote, the district had no right to ban the Satanists from meeting:
The record indicates the District engaged in viewpoint discrimination by rescinding approval of TST’s application based on the controversial nature of TST’s viewpoint, and the negative community reaction thereto…
… The Court does not doubt the honorable intentions of the District and its administrators, who were tasked with the unenviable responsibility of responding to hostile community outrage to the District’s approval of TST’s request, and to a shooting threat. However, having determined, based on the available record at this early stage of litigation, the District’s suppression of TST’s speech was not constitutionally permissible, the Court declines to hold the District’s interest in engaging in an unconstitutional suppression of speech outweighs TST’s “exercise of their constitutionally protected rights.”
The ACLU said at the time that this victory sent a “powerful message that the First Amendment protects the viewpoints and beliefs of all people and faiths.”
And now the district has agreed to settle the case rather than fight it any further in court.
“We are pleased that this matter has been resolved and that the school district has agreed to stop all discrimination against us,” said June Everett, director of TST’s ASSC programming. “Thanks to the court’s order, we were able to hold ASSC meetings at the Saucon Valley Middle School, and the kids who attended were overjoyed. It’s for them that we took on this legal fight in the first place, and we won’t hesitate to do so again if other school districts continue to enact discriminatory policies.”
The district will pay the Satanists $1 in nominal damages and their insurance provider will pay the $200,000 in legal fees. The settlement agreement makes clear the payment is “not an admission of wrongdoing,” but rather a recognition of the fact that there was indeed a “constitutional injury resulting from the District’s decision to rescind approval for Plaintiff’s use of SVSD facilities.”
In a statement to me, The Satanic Temple’s Lucien Greaves pointed out that this controversy wasn’t without additional consequences for the people involved:
Of course, money is often no object for under-qualified opportunistic public officials who are all too willing to waste public funds in the name of misguided crusades designed to leverage public fear and ignorance into votes. In Saucon Valley, however, four school board incumbents were voted out in favor of challengers who ran a campaign primarily focused on the enormous, pointless waste they incurred by violating TST’s civil liberties.
He added: “Perhaps it is time to stop wasteful public crusades that seek to unconstitutionally limit our civil liberties, and to respect the choices of non-Christian parents, too.”
He makes a good point. Officials in this district were warned how this would play out. They just chose to listen to the wrong people.
(Portions of this article were published earlier)