Voices: DeSantis thinks he can keep Satanists out of schools. He can’t

Governor Ron DeSantis has passed a slew of legislation intended to pander to the far right  (Copyright 2023 the Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
Governor Ron DeSantis has passed a slew of legislation intended to pander to the far right (Copyright 2023 the Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Ron DeSantis, the far-right governor of Florida, has been using children as pawns in his latest culture war. A state law took effect this week that is intended to allow Christian counselors into schools, who will provide “support” to students in need. The law — which DeSantis said was brought in to correct a growing sense among liberals that “God has no place” in schools — has to include other religions aside from Christianity, because of the constraints of the Constitution.

During a debate in the Utah Senate about a very similar bill, one Republican lawmaker explained that his opposition was based on the fact the state “wouldn’t be able to discriminate, and so any religion that wanted to be able to place a chaplain [in schools] would be able to do so”. That includes the Satanic Temple, he added, “who wants to place chaplains there.”

He’s not wrong.

We at the Satanic Temple — an official religion in the United States, and a group of people who campaign to challenge Christian nationalist agendas and promote freedom of thought and scientific rationalism — have discussed placing counselors in schools after such laws are passed. Indeed, we publicly declared we would do so. Such representatives would not promote worshiping Satan; they would simply offer a rational counterpoint to hardline, evangelical Christianity. Our motto, in fact, is “Empathy. Reason. Advocacy”.

Seeing no bypass around the fundamental guarantee of religious liberty (for all) and the inconvenient constitutional mandate to uphold pluralism, some Christian nationalist lawmakers in Utah did sour to the school chaplain effort. The proposed bill also failed in Pennsylvania, Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Iowa, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, and Nebraska. The Satanic Temple’s very public declarations that we would seek to insert our own chaplains in any schools that allow for them forced some public office-holding theocrats to recognize that their efforts to appeal to crusading evangelists could easily backfire. If Satanists were to enter the schools, that same evangelist target audience might demand to know who was responsible for making it so.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, however, has no such respect for his audience’s intelligence. Apparently betting on the public’s short memory span, he signed Florida’s chaplain bill into law in April. Confronting concerns regarding Satanic chaplains, DeSantis simply lied his way through a subsequent press conference, where he stated, “Some have said that if you do a school chaplain program, that, somehow, you’re going to have Satanists running around in all our schools. We’re not playing those games in Florida. That is not a religion. That is not qualified to be able to participate in this. So, we’re going to be using common sense when it comes to this. You don’t have to worry about it.”

One might easily assume that DeSantis was simply unaware that the Satanic Temple is, in fact, an IRS-recognized 501(c)3 church and, in 2020, our status as a religion was unambiguously upheld in a ruling by a federal judge. Alas, it turns out that back in December during a CNN Town Hall in Iowa, DeSantis then explicitly acknowledged our religious status, though ridiculously and obviously lying when he did so, stating that it was the Trump administration itself that conferred us our IRS approval. This was at a time where he was treating Trump as a political opponent, before coming to grovel at his feet. He was lamenting that our status as a religion allowed us to place displays in public forums where religious displays are welcome.

Following DeSantis’s bizarre claim, I was interviewed on CNN where I publicly challenged him to a debate in somewhat aggressive language, resulting in my favorite Fox News headline, “Satanic Temple leader challenges ‘pathetic little coward’ DeSantis to debate over group’s tax-exempt status.”

There is a chance, however, that this is not an example of DeSantis willfully lying to his audience, but an indication of something far worse: a would-be autocrat who, in the depths of his ignorance, or disregard for democracy, truly believes that he can and should simply legislate by wishful thinking. It could be that Ron DeSantis is honestly incompetent enough to understand his job so little as to think that he can overturn our religious status, and the constitution itself, merely by saying it is so.

Or, it could be that DeSantis chose to lie about the Satanic Temple to distract from the fact that the chaplain bill has received widespread opposition from parents, school counselors, educators, and even professional chaplains themselves. For an irresponsible culture warrior, it is far easier to decry Satanists than face concerns that your disingenuous legislation potentially endangers children by introducing unqualified religious volunteers to schools and interfering with pre-existing school counseling services.

Whatever defects DeSantis suffers from, he grossly misinformed the public with his irresponsible words. If school districts take him seriously in his claim that they can simply deny Satanist chaplains, they will be sorely disappointed to find that DeSantis’s wishful press conference proclamations hold precisely zero legal weight.

The children of Florida’s schools deserve better than to be used as pawns in DeSantis’s culture war, but if Florida schools are to introduce chaplains, we feel duty-bound to offer our own as an alternative to such proselytizing. Until then, my invitation to debate Florida’s gubernatorial pathetic little coward remains open.

Lucien Greaves is the co-founder and spokesperson for the Satanic Temple