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Satanists allowed to continue to press claim that the way the City Council picks clergy for invocations is unconstitutional

Rabbi Barbara Penzner addresses Boston City Council

Today's council meeting opened with an invocation by Rabbi Barbara Penzner of Temple Hillel B'nai Torah in West Roxbury.

A federal judge ruled today that Salem-based Satanists can continue to press their claim that the way the Boston City Council picks clergy members to start its Wednesday meetings - but not them - violates the Constitution's ban on the establishment of religion.

The Satanic Temple, frustrated in its efforts to give an invocation for a City Council meeting, sued the council in January, alleging the current system, in which councilors take turns inviting a clergy member to address the council, violates the First Amendment prohibition against government-sponsored religion and the group's First Amendment free-speech rights and violates their rights to equal treatment under the Fourteenth Amendment.

In her ruling today, US District Court Judge Allison Burroughs agreed with city lawyers that the policy does not infringe on the temple's free-speech or equal-protection rights and dismissed those claims. But she ruled that the group had made a "plausible" enough case about the establishment issue to warrant it going forward in court.

Burroughs said that no free-speech issues are involved because the council does not permit public comment at its Wednesday meetings, so they are not a "public forum" in the same way as council hearings, at which the public is invited to speak. Government, she said, has its own right to free speech and its Wednesday meetings are an expression of that.

Similarly, the Fourteenth Amendment challenge fails because of the emphasis councilors put on their selections of speakers based on their work in the community or their connection to the councilors who chose them.

The speaker at today's council meeting, Rabbi Barbara Penzer of Temple Hillel B'nai Torah in West Roxbury, who opened her invocation with the Shema, a Jewish statement that "The Lord our God, the Lord is one," spoke on the invitation of City Councilor Matt O'Malley. O'Malley, who represents West Roxbury, introduced her by praising her for her work and fondly recalling a St. Patrick's Day celebration at the temple.

Burroughs said there's nothing wrong with choosing speakers based on the associations with a particular councilor or neighborhood.

Educating the public about their representative's values and relationships and acknowledging the contributions of various constituents are legitimate government interests, to which the legislative prayer selection scheme is rationally related.

She noted that the Satanic Temple has no such connection with Boston or any of its councilors, that, in fact:

It is based outside of Boston, and although six religious organizations from outside of Boston were selected to give a legislative prayer, the only invocator from outside Boston that TST references in its Amended Complaint had a specific personal relationship with a Councilor after taking care of that Councilor's mother. No prudent person would find that TST, which emphasizes that it does not have relationships with any of the City Councilors, was similarly situated to the sole example provided.

Ed. note: In such rulings, judges are required to accept the plaintiff's facts as true. But, in fact, while that minister, Rev. Lindsay Popperson, does minister at a church in Marblehead, she lives in Jamaica Plain, where she got to know O'Malley when his mother was at the Sherrill House skilled-nursing facility on South Huntington Avenue, where she also works.

But Burroughs did find enough of a legal basis in the Satanic Temple's remaining allegation, that the method by which councilors pick invocation speakers are showing preference to "Abrahamic" religions, to warrant the case continuing.

She pointed to a 2014 Supreme Court case involving the Rochester suburb of Greece, which also opened its board meetings with an invocation. But unlike in Boston, where speakers are selected by councilors, in Greece, clergy members could sign up to given an invocation; speakers were then picked from that list. As long as the board wasn't deliberately avoiding clergy from particular religions, that is "a policy of nondiscrimination," the court concluded.

Here, by contrast, Defendant's policy does not allow for minority religions to put their names forward to be selected for a legislative prayer opportunity and instead relies on individual legislator preferences.

The amended complaint does not allege that the content of any of these invocation speeches denigrated TST or disparaged its religion but it does aver that Defendant was urged by constituents not to invite TST to give a legislative invocation and was aware of a 2,000-person march which protested TST's attempt to stage a Black Mass at Harvard. Plaintiff's facts, taken as true, allege a discriminatory motive, and therefore, Defendant's policy falls outside of [the non-discrimination standard set by an earlier Supreme Court case]

City attorneys argued that the whole invocation process was similar to the way legislators in other states give their own invocations, in this case by delegating particular clergy members to speak on their behalf. But Burroughs noted that courts in different parts of the country have ruled differently on "legislator-led" prayers and that judges in the First Circuit - which includes Massachusetts - have not ruled on the question at all.

Given the fact-specific nature of the inquiry into the constitutionality of legislative prayer schemes and the lack of controlling authority from the First Circuit or Supreme Court, this Court will not dismiss TST's Establishment Clause claim at the motion to dismiss stage. In this unsettled arena, taking into account the specific facts alleged in this case, TST has plausibly raised a claim that Defendant's prayer selection policy has discriminated against it in violation of the Establishment Clause.

PDF icon Complete ruling204.13 KB

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Why do legislators even need a religious invocation to start a session anyway? That belongs outside with a permit like anyone else.

The Satanists have no case for numerous reasons in this case though. Not being based in Boston gives them no standing to begin with. Even if they were based in the city the case is without warrant but at least they could say this affects them. Otherwise what would stop people from religious sects around the world from signing up for the Boston City Council sessions , crowding out people with actual direct connections to the community.

On that note I would say it is interesting that with all the very very left leaning politicians in that room that not a single one has the fortitude to invite the Satanists in themselves.


RE: "not a single one has the fortitude to invite the Satanists in"

Between Covid & a six-year political sh*tstorm that hasn't even ended,
I could not blame the left-leaning politicians referred to.

It's not like these (satan) people have any solutions to offer the world,
which is getting sick to death of many controversial organizations.

Now along comes Satan?....sounds a little coo-coo.

Regardless of logic, rebuttal, point/counterpoint that might challenge this,
the Court of Public Opinion will always prevail & right now
Satan isn't exactly at the top of the charts.

Religious groups don't need to have a physical presence in every city they serve. People from Boston and surrounding do go to the temple in Salem. It is the larger community they serve, not bound by city limits.


If they're going to start the meetings by talking to God, isn't it more important that they have direct connections to God?

If I thought buddies of Boston city councillors were able to get God's ear, I don't think I would want them doing so. Some of them could really piss Him off.

Government events should not be a pulpit to preach religion, which is what "The Lord our God, the Lord is one," certainly is. Likewise, tax exemptions for religions are discriminatory, and should be abolished.

Flame on.


As well as the “so help me god” some judges require jurors and witnesses to swear.


without being "under God."

/Would prefer a little more liberty and justice for all


Kids on rope swings are very often pendulant.

If at a Catholic school, penitent.

Would a chant/prayer end with "damn it to hell" vs. Amen?


They officially became a religion relatively recently in their history, previous to that they were just a 1st amendment defensive organization, most famous for their large statue of Baphomet that they would insist be displayed at government buildings that were going to put up the ten commandments or similar religious items. They were pretty effective with that strategy. I forget why they registered as a religious organization exactly, but it had something to do with changes in the tax code if I recall correctly.

Read their tenets at the link below. Since they treat Satan as a mythological being representing standing up to absolute authority in favor of individual autonomy I don't think they would end an invocation that way.



I keep meaning to visit their temple in Salem to see that statue and whatever else is there. The entrance fee is a little steep but they do such great work, it’s worth it.


Why are there any kind of religious invocations happening at City Council meetings in the first place?


As messed up as the City Council convocations are, they exist because they're a way for the councilors to gain a few votes. Every little church group they invite will result in a few loyal voters.


Invocations are a waste of time, but if they must continue, simply have a moment of silence and then, if necessary, a secular reading. Have someone recite some Bob Dylan or Paul Lawrence Dunbar or Rita Dove. It will be novel at first and then people will be excited to scrap it and reclaim 5 minutes of their life.

Until then, I recommend that the Satanic Temple crib from this classic should they get a crack at an invocation.


There are various ways to open and close City Council meetings which can exist outside the politics. They can include The Pledge (with or without "under God"), a restatement of The Oath to Defend the Constitution, etc. An invocation to a deity is not the only method of opening a meeting.

When a cleric of a monotheistic religion invokes their deity are all Council members expected to pay some sort of homage? Even if that homage is just standing and not talking? How do they handle the various Jewish and Christian deities that invoked? The deity of the Jewish Bible, the deity of the Christian Old Testament or the deity of the Christian New Testament? Or is just a proforma ritual that most folks go through to put signal to one group of constituents or another that they politically-religiously acceptable?

Prior to the WW2 that Pledge could be recited with the Bellamy Salute(arms thrust outward, hands up). When the NAZI's started using their version of a salute the US version was replaced with hand over heart. Just as that changed the use of religious language that specifically invokes some deity can also change.

Of course the Pledge did not include the words "Under God" until 1954. In other words religious invocations at City Council meetings are not carved in stone nor are they sacrosanct in some secular form.

There also is an inherent dishonesty in using deistic invocations. The mono-theistic religions have different deities. Christian Trinitarians (majority of Christians) claim a Three beings in One deity. Jews don't, Muslims don't. So different deities. Then what if anyone is Unitarian, or poly-theistic? Requiring - even if just in social pressure - that a person make a show of obeisance whether they believe it or not is asking them to perform an act of religiosity, not truly for anyone's benefit, but to put on show, a bit of theater.

In politics there is plenty of theatre. We could use more reality instead of theatrical displays of piety and pretenses of patriotism.


The question shouldn't be "why and how are they picking invocators" - it should be "why are they doing this AT ALL?"


Isn't that kind of what the Church of Satan is actually all about? Like making this big deal isn't about a round of "Hail Satan" at government assembly but to bring light to that this is a thing that probably shouldn't be a thing.

Not to discriminate against people who actually have a deep emotional and spiritual bond to the big man downstairs of course and maybe I'm way off base but I was pretty sure Satanism is a largely reactionary and somewhat tongue in cheek system that demonstrates how society turns a blind eye to Christianity existing so hugely in society. Like, nobody bats an eye about a Christian statue erected, or in this case an invocation at government meetings, or whatever but somehow it's immoral or outrageous to have something alternative to that. The image of Satan is provocative and draws attention but also less likely to cause the kind of real uproar that would emerge by having this discussion between more prominent religious groups. As in this case, instead of making it some kind of round robin effort to have different religions step in maybe it's better to just not do it in the first place as it really doesn't make sense to do so at all.


This is off topic and so I apologize for the diversion. But your first sentence was a pleasure to read. With news reporting and playing to the keep it short because we're simpletons and need cheap and fast language, the art of a long sentence that makes sense is not practiced often enough. It is pleasurable to follow a person's thought as their thinking is revealed and unspooled into fun communication.

Isn't that kind of what the Church of Satan is actually all about? Like making this big deal isn't about a round of "Hail Satan" at government assembly but to bring light to that this is a thing that probably shouldn't be a thing.

Not the Church of Satan. The Satanic Temple is a different organization.

for The Pledge. There should be no room for that fascism-adjacent relic.


Thank god for satanists.


Thank Dog as well!

Technically speaking, there really isn't any such thing as pure Satanism. It's basically just an excuse to make weird social commentary. As such, more power to them as far as I'm concerned.


Don't break kayfabe!

They are probably more insightful than Julia Mejia.


Might be worth visiting that these people are known to be nuisance litigants. They create legal cases with an expectation that most of those they complain to, will want to make it go away and settle out of court, with them profiting in money or some other form of reward.

The last time UHUB posted something about this I went on a binge search and found their attorney (at the time) was working out of a UPS mail box in a shopping plaza. Member of the bar? I didn't look that far. I laughed so hard at the private mail box thing that I just stopped after that. Clearly top shelf.

Even if they don't get money with this pass they will profit by the publicity. Profit comes in many forms. Even if they lose, they will get press coverage which is a part of the game.

We can wax philosophic about the issue of separation of church and state but before you start keeping score, get to know the players in the game.

They've been active for decades and are pretty obviously trying to advocate for the abolishment of what they see as an example of state-sponsored religious acts. They're not even trying to hide it.

"The game" here is to point out that separation of church and state is important. Any extra money or publicity they get from that is part of that goal.


No one cares.

The ST is not the Joel Osteen ministry or the Roman Catholic Church. Very few who give money to the ST are surprised to see funds going into the corporate side of things.

…. with a forked tongue.

At least they are not a commercial venture incorporated in the Cayman Islands for the purpose of avoiding paying US taxes, or incorporated in a state where they have not other business, again to keep their taxes low.

Yes, when giving money for a good or service know where the profits are going and ask whether the people enjoying those profits are paying for the infrastructure that supports them in receiving those profits.

What percentage of the past, say, 40 years of invocations have been given by a member of Roman Catholicism?

Why are we associating with a known criminal organization like that?

Let's just do away with these "invocations"...otherwise we risk inviting more association with potential pedophiles and tax cheats.