A Boston city council already embroiled in controversy over how many mayoral elections to hold this year - in addition to dealing with the pandemic, racial inequities and police reform - now has to battle Satan, in the form of a lawsuit filed by the Satanic Temple of Salem over its refusal to let any Satanists give one of the invocations that start Wednesday council meetings.
In a lawsuit filed in US District Court in Boston today, the Satanists seek to have the current council invocation policy declared unconstitutional because it discriminates in favor of Abrahamic religions. The complaint - which lists the temple's core tenets - also asks a judge to order the council to let a Satanist get on the schedule to open a meeting so they can give the devil his due.
City councilors take turns inviting members of the clergy to provide a benediction to start their Wednesday meetings - and ask visitors to stand (City Clerk Maureen Feeney stands in when a clergy person can't be found). Over the years, councilors have heard from any number of priests, ministers, nuns, rabbis and imams, but mostly priests and ministers. In 2015, even the Hare Krishnas got to open a council meeting, invited by at-large Councilor Michelle Wu.
But when the Satanic Temple, which claims 2,449 Boston-area members, asked then Council President Wu for an invitation to speak of the devil in 2016, she demurred, saying the choice of benediction givers is made by individual councilors and the temple should ask one of them to extend an invite - which none did.
Similar requests to the council in 2017 and 2018, when Councilor Andrea Campbell was council president, were also rebuffed.
The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination took no action in 2019 on a Satanic Temple complaint about the practice, in part because it's not set up to handle constitutional issues.
And so the Satanic Temple went to court, offering a hand basket of reasons why the council policy not only gets their goat, but sins against the First Amendment bans on favoring a particular religion and suppressing speech and the Fourteenth Amendment ban on unequal treatment of citizens.
No other religious group has requested an opportunity to bless the Council’s meeting, only to be denied. TST is sole group to have ever been excluded.
Councilors' - and their constituents' - distaste for the Satanic message should not override the Constitution, the temple says:
The Court should find Boston's legislative prayer scheme unconstitutional as an affront to the Establishment Clause because the City's prayer selection practice lacks neutrality enforcing safeguards, lacks a mechanism to provide an equal prayer opportunity to all groups who want to participate, and was exploited to exclude TST from participation. ...
TST’s intention to bless the Council's meetings with a Satanic prayer was an expression of religious significance.
The City withheld that prayer opportunity because it finds TST to be an "undesirable" religion and wanted to avoid the public outcry which would inevitably ensue from granting TST equal participation rights to Christians.
The complaint says volunteers watched recordings of 233 invocations given between 2011 and 2017, and found further alleged evidence of the council's bias against non-Abrahamic religions:
Nonbelievers of various stripes consist of 33% of the Boston population. Yet, of 233 reviewed instances of prayers between 2011 and 2017, precisely one blessing–less than 0.5%–was nonreligious. That was offered by Sister Margaret Leonard of Project Hope (a laudable international health care organization, but not a religious congregation) on October 22, 2014.
Similarly, Hindus consist of 1% of the Boston population, yet were disproportionately underrepresented at one instance of 233 reviewed prayers,less than half their proportionate share.
Buddhists, also with 1% of the Boston population, received no representation at all.
Wiccans, other Pagans, and Native Americans, all, have adherents in Boston yet they, too, got no invite.
The complaint continues that the council couldn't even stay consistent with its own supposed guidelines to only offer prayer opportunities to Boston residents. At least six clergy members from outside the city opened council meetings with prayers in 2018 and 2019, including a Congregational minister from Marblehead, brought into the council chambers by Councilor Matt O'Malley (Jamaica Plain, West Roxbury).
In response to the MCAD investigator's further inquiry, the City explained that Councilor O'Malley had a "personal connection" with the Reverend because the Reverend serves as the Chaplain for a nursing center where the Councilor's mother received care.
That's religious discrimination. The stated practice was that O'Malley "exclusively invited individuals from within their respective districts who are known for their outreach work." Changing that rule to benefit one ("preferred") religious group, but not affording that same benefit to a different ("undesirable") religious group is disparate treatment because of religious beliefs.
However, while Popperson does minister at the Old North Church in Marblehead, she lives in Jamaica Plain. She also works at the nursing home the Satanists referenced - the Sherrill House skilled-nursing facility on South Huntington Avenue in Jamaica Plain.
The complaint appears at least superficially similar to an effort by a West Roxbury man to fly a Christian flag from a flagpole in front of City Hall - an effort that was, once again, struck down by a federal appeals court on Friday.
However, one key difference; In that case, the city had a policy of not allowing explicitly religious flags to fly from the flagpole. Had the city allowed religious flags to fly from the pole, then Hal Shurtleff might have a case, but it didn't and so he doesn't, courts keep ruling. In contrast, most of the people who give council invocations are not only dressed in their religious garb, and, in the case of the Christian ones, at least, they have occasionally referenced Jesus or "Our Father."