FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – A group that invokes the name Satan as a metaphor for opposing religious tyranny has sued the well-off Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale, accusing officials of discrimination after being denied an opportunity to give the opening prayer at a City Council meeting.
Michelle Shortt of the Satanic Temple of Tucson was scheduled to preside over the council’s invocation in July 2016. But the city canceled it, saying it would keep with tradition in allowing prayer only from groups with substantial ties to Scottsdale.
According to the lawsuit filed this week in federal district court in Arizona, the Satanic Temple wasn’t asked about community ties when it applied by phone to give the prayer. The group is asking a judge to find the city in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment right to free speech and to prevent the city from denying prayer opportunities to non-Christian religious groups.
“Once you open a public forum to religion, you can’t then decide which ones you like best to represent in that public forum,” said the temple’s attorney, Stuart de Haan.
Kelly Corsette, a spokeswoman for Scottsdale, said the mayor’s office asks that prayers be non-denominational, kept under three minutes, and encourage wisdom and guidance in City Council deliberations. She said Tuesday the Satanic Temple wasn’t turned away for its religious affiliation but because it did not have close ties with Scottsdale.
“We believe the city’s practice meets all constitutional requirements,” she said.
The Satanic Temple is a national group with chapters in several states, including Arizona, that doesn’t worship Satan or any deities. It has sought to start after-school Satan programs in protest of what it says is the erosion of the separation of church and state, install statues of Satan outside state capitols to counter Ten Commandments monuments and give opening prayers at City Council meetings.
The Phoenix City Council effectively blocked the Satanic Temple from delivering an opening prayer in February 2016 by opting for silent prayer instead. It later restored spoken prayers before meetings on the condition they be given exclusively by fire or police department chaplains.
The group has threatened to sue cities before for the same right to pray as dominant religious groups, but it said the lawsuit against Scottsdale is the first in Arizona.
Emails outlined in the lawsuit show that defendants have referred to the group as a “sideshow” and said Satanists are trying to mock City Hall traditions.
In a February 2016 email, one city councilwoman told constituents she likes the opening prayers but said allowing Satanists to say them would be “taking equality too far.”