Satan Strikes A Blow for Choice

The Satanic Temple has done it again, turning one of the religious right’s best weapons against them.

As you may know, the Satanic Temple is a non-theistic religion which believes in Satan as a metaphor for independence and freedom of thought, not a literal supernatural being. They hold as one of their tenets that “one’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.” Whenever Christians are demanding special rights, they can be counted on to show up and ask for the same privilege.

I wrote about the Satanic Temple in 2014, when they announced that they were seeking to overturn abortion restrictions using the Hobby Lobby ruling as precedent. In 2015, they found their test case in Missouri.

Missouri has an exceptionally harsh set of restrictions on abortion, including a three-day waiting period, the longest in the nation, with no exception for rape or incest. The law also has an ultrasound provision and requires the woman to certify receipt of a booklet, written by the state, which says “the life of each human being begins at conception.”

The Satanic Temple’s plaintiff is a woman identified as Mary Doe. When she wanted an abortion, her only option was to take a three-hour bus ride to a St. Louis clinic, take time off from work, and pay for a motel for herself and her child (most women who have abortions are already mothers). All told, this cost her over $500 and forty-five hours of work just to save up the money required.

When Doe got to the clinic, she presented a letter asserting that her Satanic belief in autonomy and bodily integrity allowed her to opt out of the waiting period and other restrictions. When this request was denied, the Satanic Temple filed lawsuits on her behalf in both federal and state court. The federal suit says Missouri’s abortion laws violate her First Amendment right to religious freedom, while the state suit argues that they violate Missouri’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Although a ruling hasn’t come yet, there was a breakthrough last month when the case was being argued at the Missouri Supreme Court. Missouri Solicitor General John Sauer was asked about the ultrasound requirement, and this was his answer:

During Tuesday’s hearing, Judge Laura Denver Stith asked the state to clarify whether women are, in fact, forced by law to undergo an ultrasound in order to listen to the fetal heartbeat.

“The best interpretation of that statute,” responded Sauer, “is that she is entitled to decline.”

As is shown by the fact that the judge had to ask about it, Missouri’s TRAP law is ambiguous. It states that an abortion provider “shall provide the woman with the opportunity to view” an ultrasound 72 hours prior. It says she can have the ultrasound elsewhere, but doesn’t say plainly that she’s allowed to turn it down. (An equally plausible interpretation is that the woman must receive the ultrasound but doesn’t have to see the results.) Given the state’s obvious eagerness to use any pretext to shut clinics down, abortion providers could be forgiven for not taking any chances, but now they have a clear statement that it’s optional.

This is a small but real win for choice, knocking down one of the barriers that Missouri sought to place in women’s way. But there are bigger goals in sight. Writing for the Satanic Temple, Jex Blackmore lays out the logic of their lawsuit:

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a substantial burden exists where the state “puts substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs.” This is a clear example of the imposition of a substantial burden under RFRA.

However, the State is permitted to burden Mary’s free exercise of religion if they have a compelling interest to do so and are using the least restrictive means possible. Even if the State claims they have a compelling interest in preserving “unborn life,” the burdens are certainly not the least restrictive means possible.

Indeed, the entire point of waiting periods and other TRAP laws is to pressure women not to get an abortion, either by guilting and shaming them or by putting financial and logistical hurdles in their path. The religious-right legislators who wrote these laws aren’t shy about saying so. They just didn’t anticipate that anyone would frame this as a burden on their right of free exercise.

As I’ve said before, if an anti-choice Christian thinks the Satanic Temple’s lawsuit should fail, I really want to hear them try to explain why. What principle lets you conclude that Christians have a right to opt out of laws that infringe on their religious beliefs, but other religions don’t?

It can’t be that anti-abortion laws are needed to “protect children” and this overrides religious objections. Religion is already allowed to imperil the health and safety of children. For instance, church-run daycares are excused from safety standards that apply to secular competitors. In other states, faith-healing parents are protected from prosecution if their children get sick and die from not being taken to the doctor, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, who celebrate children who die from refusing transfusions. Religious objections to vaccination are still recognized in far too many states.

I went looking for Christian conservatives’ reactions to the Satanic Temple’s lawsuit. Regrettably, I didn’t find many, except for this site which says that the First Amendment “does not extend to ending the life of another American” (wrong, as just discussed), and then sputters that the Satanists are “attempting to set a frightening precedent”.

Again, wrong! That precedent was already set, and Christians were the ones who did it. The Satanic Temple is just walking through the door that the Christians left open. Granted, the Missouri case has yet to be decided, and there’s no way to guess how it will turn out – but we’ve already seen that the religious right can’t stand getting a taste of its own medicine.

P.S.: If you want to learn more about the Satanic Temple and its legal strategy, check out the Feminist Coffee Hour podcast interview of Jex Blackmore. Full disclosure: I’m married to one of the hosts.

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