Don’t Count on the Satanic Temple for a Legal Abortion

The organization claims religious exemption for its members as they pursue abortion care. The reality is much more complicated.

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Don’t Count on the Satanic Temple for a Legal Abortion

It all sounds so impishly perfect. If the United States legal system reveres religious freedom, often trampling on others’ rights to rule in favor of religious plaintiffs, why not try to beat it at its own game? That’s been the implicit strategy of The Satanic Temple (TST) since its founding in 2013. Courts regularly grant legal protections to Christians, so Satanists, too, try to advocate for their religious rights—righteously swooping in like a horned superhero to fight against corporal punishment in public schools and religious monuments on public property. Even if they lose, they at least point out hypocrisy in the process. TST has gained notoriety for its efforts to oppose injustice and now has more than 700,000 members and 675,000 followers across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

But the courts have been dramatically reshaped since TST’s founding and now do things like let Texas’ six-week abortion ban take effect in open defiance of Roe v. Wade—a decision the Supreme Court officially overturned on Friday, paving the way for many more states to adopt abortion bans. Things on the bodily autonomy front are scarier than ever, and people desperately want to believe there’s a way out of this hell. TST appears to offer one.

On May 5, days after the leak of the draft opinion gutting Roe, TST chimed in on Twitter, saying it had “positioned itself to protect religious abortion access for our members.” It continued, writing that members in some states that ban abortion “should be permitted a religious exemption” if they perform TST’s “religious abortion ritual.” (TST also said it would sue the Food and Drug Administration to give it access to abortion pills.) In effect, TST’s messaging went beyond claiming that its members are exempt from oppressive state abortion restrictions (like waiting periods, medically unnecessary sonograms, and mandatory counseling prior to abortion procedures) to suggesting that outright bans post-Roe won’t apply to its members—its most aggressive framing of the issue yet. TST echoed this boldness on Twitter Friday, about three hours after the court overturned Roe, saying: “The Satanic Temple is the leading beacon of light in the battle for abortion access. With Roe v Wade overturned, a religious exemption will be the only available challenge to many restrictions to access.”

These comments aren’t terribly surprising given TST’s past efforts to challenge abortion restrictions—covered by this website and many others, as well as broadcast widely by admirers on social media—but abortion advocates are increasingly concerned that TST’s reproductive rights campaign is, at best, unhelpful and, at worst, an ineffective stunt that puts pregnant people in legal jeopardy.

It is not difficult to become a member of the Satanic Temple—all it takes is a couple clicks on the website to reach the membership signup form, and it’s free to join (though optional membership cards are $35). There’s no swearing allegiance to the devil or the supernatural, as TST doesn’t believe in Satan but rather is devoted to advancing secularism, or the separation of church and state. (Still, you can enjoy its kitschy aesthetic—upside-down pentagram, goat-headed deity, red and black color scheme. It’s even headquartered in Salem, Massachusetts, home of the 17th century witch trials.)

For its members, TST flatly claims exemption from abortion restrictions in clinics like waiting periods and ultrasounds if they perform the “religious abortion ritual,” which involves looking in a mirror and reciting two of TST’s tenets before taking pills or having the procedure. Its wording sounds pretty confident: “The Satanic Temple has announced that its Satanic abortion ritual exempts TST members from enduring medically unnecessary and unscientific regulations when seeking to terminate their pregnancy.” To take advantage, TST offers a letter of religious exemption for members to show to medical practitioners, allegedly giving members legal grounds to circumvent abortion restrictions. Easy enough—that is, if the abortion provider honors the letter. If the provider does not and a member still has to endure the restrictions before they can get an abortion, that member can email TST so as to determine “the next steps of resolving the situation and deciding whether to take legal action.”

Now, with Roe gone, we have entered a period when clinics will overwhelmingly halt abortion services in hostile states, leading more abortion-seekers to take matters into their own hands. In practice, “taking matters into your own hands” in a state with an abortion ban will, for many, mean ordering abortion pills online. TST’s exemption language on its website might reassure people that they have legal backing if they do. TST has not explicitly told members they are legally protected when ordering abortion pills, but it also has not officially addressed overly simplistic information spreading online that seemingly indicates TST’s ritual will protect people having abortions. In a worst-case scenario, pregnant people in hostile states who order pills could get arrested if they seek care for complications at a hospital, or if someone reports them to the police. The abortion-seeker will have been thrust into the criminal legal system. The closest TST has come to outwardly acknowledging the risk is saying “we will likely have to sue those states to affirm our civil rights, but the law is clearly on our side.”

people desperately want to believe there’s a way out of this hell. TST appears to offer one.

Denise Rodriguez, communications manager for the Texas Equal Access (TEA) Fund, an abortion fund serving north Texas, said she’s wary of TST promoting an unproven loophole, especially for people who manage their own abortions with pills. “[People] could possibly put themselves at risk for criminalization trying to do this,” Rodriguez told Jezebel. “[TST] encouraging people shows a lack of understanding or knowledge about how the criminal justice system actually can really harm a lot of marginalized communities.” More than 1,300 people were criminalized for their pregnancy outcomes between 2006 and 2020, according to National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

In fact, days after the Supreme Court let Texas’ six-week abortion ban take effect in September 2021, Rodriguez said TikTok was full of videos claiming the TST abortion ritual was a way to get around the law. (This genre of TikTok still persists, though some try to debunk the information.) Some publications framed it as the “last hope” for abortion rights in Texas. So TEA fund took to Twitter: “PS – The Satanic Temple ritual doesn’t work to exempt you from abortion restrictions. Stop spreading that misinformation.” Yellowhammer Fund, an abortion fund serving Alabama and Mississippi, also spoke out about TST. Imani Gandy, a legal journalist covering reproductive justice, wrote in May that TST’s legal efforts were “actually harmful,” adding, “The Satanic Temple is not going to save you.”

“I just want to make sure that people are aware about organizations that might not be good for them, like [crisis pregnancy centers],” Rodriguez said, “and TST is kind of a part of that.”

When reached for comment by Jezebel, TST’s lawyer Matthew Kezhaya disputed any implication that TST was “tricking people into believing in rights that do not exist” and rejected the suggestion that people would join TST just to participate in the abortion ritual. TST’s legal argument, he clarified, depends on the person having a “sincerely held” religious viewpoint.

TST gained headline prominence through legal stunts like attempting to place statues of the winged, goat-headed Baphomet next to other religious monuments on state property, and then filing lawsuits when cities and states objected to prove a point about Christianity’s influence on government. It was successful in getting a Ten Commandments monument removed from the Oklahoma state capitol grounds in 2015. Jezebel itself has described TST as a group of “merry social advocacy trolls,” and many folks online cheer on the temple’s legal battles.

The temple has taken purposeful legal action on behalf of abortion access, but not much of it has been successful. The group lost a 2019 state court case challenging Missouri abortion restrictions, and a federal appeals court dismissed a similar suit in 2020. TST said it has appealed the suit to the Supreme Court. (Its suit against similar Texas restrictions was put on hold pending the outcome of the case involving Roe.) It is currently suing to be able to put ads up promoting its abortion ritual in Arkansas and Indiana.

There’s no guarantee on TST’s website that the organization will provide legal counsel to members who use the abortion ritual and get into trouble. Members can contact a dedicated email address but their options for actual care appear limited. Jex Blackmore, former spokesperson for TST’s reproductive rights campaigns from 2014 to 2018, said that the ritual legally exposes people. “Should someone attempt to use one of their exemption forms and face legal punishment, there is no guarantee the Temple or any other attorney would support or pay for the fees associated with their defense or resulting fines,” Blackmore said in a statement to Jezebel. “They are putting people at risk.”

TST’s lawyer Kezhaya clarified to Jezebel that “part of the ritual requires consulting with your local minister”—a step that isn’t mentioned on the temple’s site or in either of its two guides on performing the ritual—and in the case of “foreseeable legal complications,” TST refers people to him “for further evaluation and discussion.”

Blackmore added that TST has yet to prove that its religious exemptions will hold up in court. “It’s possible they could make headway in the future, but past efforts suggest that it is unlikely,” Blackmore said.

People march together to protest the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health case on June 24, 2022 in Miami, Florida. Photo:Photo by Allison Dinner/Anadolu Agency (Getty Images)

Even if TST had a proven track record defending abortion access for its members in the courts, it apparently puts its own limitations on members seeking to avoid abortion restrictions via the ritual exemption: “Those who perform the religious abortion ritual are exempt from these requirements and can receive first-trimester abortions on demand in states that have enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act [RFRA],” its website claims. Deciphered, that means the ritual only applies to abortions in the first trimester—that is, before 14 weeks of pregnancy. (When asked to clarify how TST arrived at first-trimester abortions, Kezhaya said that the group accepts fetal viability “as a reasonable, generally applicable, cut-off.” Courts recognize fetal viability as occurring between 22 and 24 weeks.)

There are also several states poised to severely restrict abortion before 14 weeks (if they haven’t already) that have not enacted RFRA—seemingly another caveat to TST’s exemption, if someone were to attempt to use it to get abortion pills in those states.

More confusingly, if people click to “read more” about the ritual, TST goes back to being ultra definitive: “In accordance with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), first trimester abortions are now exempt from unnecessary regulations for all individuals practicing The Satanic Temple’s religious abortion ritual.” (TST’s website does concede that it has lost cases seeking exemptions for members and notes that appeals are ongoing in some.)

Liz Reiner Platt, an attorney and the director of The Law, Rights, and Religion Project at Columbia University, said that, legally speaking, TST’s religious abortion ritual is far from a slam dunk for members looking to avoid restrictions. “If they’re positioning this as some sort of done deal or something—an exemption that’s already secured—that would not be correct,” she told Jezebel.

Reiner Platt was similarly suspect of TST’s May 5 tweet that “in states that outlaw abortion but grant exceptions for instances of incest and rape…TST members should be permitted a religious exemption to perform TST’s religious abortion ritual.” As she said, “the word ‘should’ is certainly doing a lot of work there.”

TST’s lawyer Kezhaya referred Jezebel to a blog post posted later in the day on May 5 by TST’s founder, Lucien Greaves, who claimed that while TST has “the full weight of legal authority on our side,” “judges are reluctant to recognize it.” The post also said TST will continue to litigate “because the law is on our side, and eventually we will get the courts to acknowledge it.”

However, that same blog post begins with a fairly different tone: “Confusion over The Satanic Temple’s campaign to protect reproductive rights has led some to think that a religious liberty claim will immediately be accepted, allowing for readily-available abortion access in the post Roe United States…But sometimes, strong legal arguments are not enough.” You’d have to subscribe to Greaves’ Patreon to read this clarification, which isn’t reflected on TST’s website or social outlets.

Beyond the legal purgatory, there’s the matter of resources in the abortion rights space: They’re desperately needed and woefully limited. TST is not only sharing information about its abortion ritual, but asking supporters to donate to its reproductive rights lawsuits and campaigns—$66 is the default donation amount, and $666 is another option—which is potentially siphoning money from, yes, abortion funds and clinics, but also groups that effectively strive to help people minimize the legal risks of self-managing their abortions.

“Should someone attempt to use one of their exemption forms and face legal punishment, there is no guarantee the Temple or any other attorney would support or pay for the fees associated with their defense or resulting fines.”

While many abortion funds, including TEA Fund, publish annual financial summaries or topline stats, TST is rarely transparent about how much money it’s raising and how it’s spending it. On June 10, it announced that it had recently raised $150,000 to “support [its] campaign efforts and grant members the tools to receive medically safe abortions.” TST’s October 2021 newsletter said it had raised $200,000. But TST doesn’t publish this financial information on its site and has not filed Form 990s with the IRS, which it’s not required to do since it’s a church. Blackmore said TST owes its supporters more.

“As far as I know, TST lacks transparency in the form of public financial reporting so it is impossible to know how donated dollars are spent,” Blackmore said. “If TST wants more funding…make them prove that they are invested in the rights of pregnant people seeking an abortion rather than using them as an opportunity to turn a profit with the leftovers from their frivolous lawsuits.”

TST’s lawyer said any excess funds not spent on its various litigation efforts would be used “to support its members.”

Blackmore added that abortion-rights supporters should instead donate to groups “with a proven track record of success and whose funding directly supports those in need,” like abortion funds.

TST in recent years purchased billboard space in Texas and Florida. One ad was simple black and white text citing maternal mortality stats, while the other depicted two 1950s women drinking sodas. The woman on the left asked, “You’re telling me, I do not have to endure a waiting period when I have an abortion?” The other responded, “That’s true if you’re a SATANIST.”

Sure, theoretically, if you’re a Satanist, if you’re in your first trimester, if you’re in a state that’s enacted RFRA, and if you go through the correct steps of the ritual, including showing the exemption form to an abortion provider who’ll accept it, you won’t have to endure a waiting period to have an abortion. But TST has not successfully guaranteed that membership will grant you a route around abortion restrictions. And there’s definitely no guarantee “religious exemption” will help you overcome all-out bans.

Criticism of TST doesn’t mean that all religious freedom challenges to abortion are doomed. Recently, a Florida synagogue filed a lawsuit against the state’s 15-week abortion ban, saying it violates the religious freedom of Jewish people. Jewish teachings say that abortion isn’t only permitted, but required in cases where a pregnancy threatens the life or physical or mental health of the pregnant person. Reiner Platt said she expects many other kinds of religious challenges to abortion laws, which might argue, for instance, that people are religiously prohibited from bringing a child into the world that they cannot care for.

Abortion bans are tools of oppression, and it would be an incredible win for abortion seekers in hostile states if the Satanic Temple’s legal strategy of claiming religious exemption worked. But so far it hasn’t. Not that you’d know that from TST’s online presence.

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