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Judge rules Boston City Council doesn't have to let Satanists give an invocation if it doesn't want to

A federal judge today dismissed a lawsuit by the Satanic Temple of Salem against the Boston City Council over the way counncilors invites clergy members to start meetings with an invocation, concluding that councilors were recognizing the good work done in the city by the clergy, not because they're pushing a particular religious viewpoint.

In their filings, the Satanists said they did, too, do good things in Boston, pointing to such efforts as their "Mentruatin' with Satan" program to collect tampons and distribute them to women in need, but US District Court Judge Angel Kelley pointed to statements by city councilors, in particular former at-large Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, that they were just unaware of the Satanists in general, at least up until the point the group began pushing for invites and then, in 2021, sued.

Kelley acknowledged that most of the clergy members invited to start weekly council meetings are Christian and sometimes mention Jesus or call for the Lord's blessings on councilors, but said the council has invited rabbis, an imam and even laypeople to say something inspirational before the council recites the Pledge of Allegiance and then gets down to business. Under a policy that dates back to the 1800s, when Boston had a board of aldermen, councilors take turns picking local clergy members to start their Wednesday meetings.

In contrast to communities in other parts of the country where similar practices have been questioned, at no point are the clergy members, from what Kelley said she could tell, trying to proselytize or demean other religious groups or attempting to get people to bow their heads in whatever form of worship the clergy prefer.

In 2017, apparently in response to one of TST's requests for an invocation, former Councilor Essaibi-George, like former Councilor Wu, stated that invocation speakers are "invited because of all of the incredible work that they do across the City, work to end youth violence, work to provide shelter and stability to the homeless, or compassion and support for people in recovery."

This evidence shows that the City Council's refusal to extend an invitation to TST was not motivated by an "aversion or bias" toward TST's beliefs. Town of Greece, 572 U.S. at 585. The introductions of the invocation speakers in the videos in the record similarly focus on the work the speakers had done in the community. Moreover, TST's own papers suggest that City Council invited invocation speakers based on their status as "political insiders," not their religious beliefs. It is possible that City Councilors select invocation speakers based on political affiliations and connections, as TST states. But those political considerations do not equate to discrimination based on religious beliefs. TST provides no evidence that the decision not to extend an invitation to TST was motivated by animus or bias. The City provides evidence that it was, in fact, motivated by other, lawful reasons. This evidence ranges from the City Councilors' contemporaneous responses to TST's requests for an invitation to evidence revealed years later through fact discovery, such as depositions. The evidence, viewed as a whole, does not suggest that these reasons were pretextual. There is no evidence that other groups asked to give an invocation and an invitation was then extended to them. While TST provides some evidence that it had been involved in the greater Boston community, which is the primary factor City Councilors consider when selecting invocation speakers, through "Menstruatin' with Satan," "Warmer than Hell [coat drive]," and Boston Pride tabling, there is no evidence that the City Councilors knew of those activities, nor that those activities took place within the Councilors' districts. Indeed, the evidence clearly conflicts with that conclusion—former Councilor Essaibi-George explained that she was unaware of TST's activities and community contributions when they sought inclusion in the invocation calendar and, indeed, the most she had read about TST was in the pamphlet given to her on the day of her deposition for this litigation.

Kelley also rejected a Satanist argument that e-mail some Boston residents sent councilors demanding the Satanists be kept away from the council chambers means the councilors themselves were biased:

The emails sent from the public to the City Councilors fall short of supporting TST's discrimination claim. Emails from the public expressing disagreement with TST's beliefs— particularly where, as here, there is no evidence that any City Councilor responded to those emails—do not support an inference that City Councilors did not invite TST to give an invocation because they shared the same opinion as the senders. City Councilors are public officials who interact with constituents regularly and whose email addresses are publicly available. ... If they could be held liable for every belief a constituent expressed, there would be no end to their liability. That is a step too far that the Court is not willing to take.

And she dismissed the temple's claim that the council's actions were particularly aimed at interfering with its religious rights under the Massachusetts equivalent of the First Amendment:

TST argues that City Council's legislative prayer practice is unlawfully burdensome because "it amounts to a forced choice" that requires TST to "continue to venerate Satan and thereby forfeit [its] opportunity to access a prayer opportunity," or it can "abandon the defining aspect of [its] creed in the hopes that this will make [it] sufficiently palatable to the political ruling class." This manufactured burden cannot sustain TST's free exercise challenge. A "‘substantial burden' is one that is coercive or compulsory in nature." Curtis, 652 N.E.2d at 587 (citations omitted). The City Council's legislative prayer practice is neither. The City has neither "condition[ed] receipt of an important benefit on conduct proscribed by a religious faith," nor has it "denie[d] such a benefit because of conduct mandated by a religious belief," and there is no indication that the City Council's legislative prayer practice has made it "more difficult to practice certain religions." Id. at 588. Because TST's "right to maintain [its] religion has not been hampered" by the City Council's legislative prayer practice, judgment must be awarded in favor of the City. Fedele v. Sch. Comm. of Westwood, 587 N.E.2d 757, 761 (Mass. 1992).

But while dismissing the Satanic lawsuit, Kelley did raise a red flag for councilors:

The City Council's process—or lack thereof—for selecting invocation speakers is the most troublesome to the Court of all factors to consider regarding legislative prayer practices. There is no dispute that the selection of the invocation speaker is left to each individual City Councilor’s discretion, and there are no formal written policies governing this procedure. This leaves ample room for abuse, which concerns the Court. However, the lack of a formal, written policy does not by itself create a constitutional problem (though the existence of one could provide neutrality-enforcing guidelines that would help avoid constitutional issues in the future), nor does the fact that the selection of speakers is left to the discretion of the individual Councilors.

A similar lackadaisical approach to determining which flags could fly on City Hall Plaza flagpoles ultimately led to a Supreme Court decision that let a former West Roxbury man fly his "Christian" flag outside City Hall for a couple of hours - and a $2.1-million payment to his lawyers.

Kelley's ruling did not reference the various stunts the Satanists tried to pull to push their claims, including trying to force Michelle Wu - but not Essaibi George - to spend several hours in Salem on Election Day, threatening to have Wu arrested and accusing city officials and Kelley of being part of a sinister conspiracy - an accusation the group's lawyer later said was simply a joke that a humor-impaired city attorney failed to grasp.

A federal magistrate judge ordered the Satanic Temple to reimburse Boston $8,000 for the time city attorneys spent fending off the group's repeated efforts to force Wu to drive up to Salem for a deposition - which would start with a candle-lit Satanic invocation.

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Comments

called for dropping the invocation altogether?

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They really should get rid of it entirely. It's not really worth the headaches and costs that have accumulated over the years.

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Accidentally double posted!

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Just as no Hollywood movie has ever turned a profit, so none of the good works that a Satanist could possibly do will be recognized as good works by the Boston City Council.

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There are two major strains of satanism in the US. One is very reactionary and awful. But the other is actually quite progressive and regularly engages in lawsuits and other efforts against the imposition of Christianity in public spaces and on non-christians in general. As an atheist that work is genuinely important to me.

And btw it wasn’t the Boston satanists who raped children for years and defended and covered up for the rapists, that was the Catholic Church. Statists literally have a lot less blood on their hands than pretty much any Christian denomination.

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I'm going out to buy popcorn, brb

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There are actually NO "major strands of Satanism" in the US (or anywhere else for that matter). it isn't even really a "thing". I hope by "reactionary and awful" you don't mean that fake "Satanic panic" nonsense of the 1990s that caused so much trouble. And if there are actually any kind of gross things going on with abuses or what have you it's a couple of pockets of sick individuals here and there, not any kind of organized "Satanism". The other "strand", is basically performance art used to engage in a kind of quirky social commentary. To that end I say more power to them. But, no, there is no "Satanism" as such. It's highly conceptual.

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Inch by inch...

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Will no longer be able to use as an excuse for their bad behavior "The Devil made me do it"

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Like the flag decision the ruling may be legally or constitutionally correct, but it remains my opinion that in a secular society there is no justification for opening a city meeting with any kind of ceremony involving prayer.

If they're honoring these people for their works in the community then limiting it to religious groups/leaders is automatically excluding any secular group that is having a positive impact in the city merely because they don't buy into the belief of the unproven.

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The ruling notes that councilors have also selected laypeople to give invocations.

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Back in the Before Times, when I regularly covered council meetings, the majority of those laypeople was really just one layperson, City Clerk (and former councilor) Maureen Feeney - who seemed to be the go-to fill-in person when the invited clergyperson couldn't make it.

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First, "layperson" just means not ordained clergy of some kind. It doesn't mean they're not going to inject a lot of skydaddy talk into whatever they say. Second, there's a qualitative difference between "May the council do the best it can and all that" and "O mighty imaginary being, help us do your theocratic will".

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Her invocations were of the general inspirational type, with no references to Jesus or whatever.

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...if anyone thinks "laypeople" means "content will be secular and will not infringe on the separation of church and state", they are very much mistaken.

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Then it's more of a question of freedom of speech rather than establishment of religion. While a layperson may be a member of a specific church/religion, they don't officially represent that religion -- akin to how our current President's views on abortion don't necessarily comport with those of the Catholic Church, of which he is an adherent.

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If someone stands up spouting a bunch of Christian propaganda, they're representing Christianity, and I don't care that they're not wearing a dog collar. They have no business doing so in the performance of official functions.

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She was great and didn't even evoke Skydaddy when I got a bit choked up trying to "repeat after me"

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They say the pledge of allegiance before each council meeting?

WTF is this? 3rd grade?

I'd be glad if they did away with the invocation AND the pledge before each meeting.

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I always cringed when kids would say, "I pledge OF allegiance to the flag...."

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Or I would be, if they'd use the original version that didn't have god in it. Having government officials remind themselves that their purpose is to serve the nation and its people is not a bad thing. Making them couch that in religious language is.

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The pledge at meetings in gov't happens alot more than you think.

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That was the kick off to the ceremony this spring, the pledge of allegiance like we were in Texas or something.

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Religious invocations have no place in a public meeting.

Get a local elementary school chorus to sing "My Country Tis of Thee" instead. That will be a lot more inspiring, and will encourage children and their parents to take an interest in local government.

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Our fathers' God to Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright,
With freedom's holy light,
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God our King.

Source.

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If we can't even sing "My Country 'Tis of Thee", then can we at least sing "America the Beautiful" or the "National Anthem" or the "Battle Hymn of the Repubic" or "God Bless America"!?

Sheesh!

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...in most if not all of them.

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Doesn't have to just be religious or patriotic. Can be about the seasons, nature ("summer in the city", "June is bustin' out all over", Here comes the sun", "A beautiful morning"); Boston ("I"m shippin' up to Boston", "Dirty Water"); lots of possibilities.

That'd be great!

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