Bill to ban satanic displays advances, after heated debate on religion

From left, Republican Sens. Wendy Rogers of Flagstaff, Jake Hoffman of Queen Creek and Justine Wadsack of Tucson all supported Hoffman’s bill that would ban satanic displays on public grounds. Hoffman said it is needed to prevent “desecration” of public land, but critics called it a blatant violation of religious rights. (Photo by Martin Dreyfuss/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – A Senate committee gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a bill that would ban satanic displays on public grounds, following an often-testy debate over whether Satanism is a religion to be respected or a “desecration of public property.”

The Reject Escalating Satanism by Preserving Essential Core Traditions, or RESPECT Act, would ban “satanic memorials, statues, altars, or displays, or any other method of representing or honoring Satan” on public property.

Opponents, including Satanists who testified against the bill, called it a clear violation of their freedom of religion rights. But a combative Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, called Satanism the “antithesis of religion.”

“It is a desecration of public property in Arizona,” said Hoffman, the lead sponsor of the bill. “We have more respect for our public property and for the people who call Arizona home than to have satanic altars and displays on public property.”

Micah Mangione, a representative for the Freedom from Religion Association, said he thinks the bill is more about targeting a religion than it is about preventing the desecration of public property. He said that could eventually lead to restricting expression on all religions except “traditional Christianity.”

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“I do suspect that is not really the goal of this. It is recognized that the satanic temple is a religion, and this is a slippery slope,” Mangione said.

Mangione was one of about 20 people in the audience, most of whom identified themselves as atheists or members of the Satanic Temple and as opponents of the bill during an argumentative 30-minute hearing.

Crowd members occasionally responded to their speakers with “Hail, Satan.” They could be heard jeering at Hoffman’s defense of the bill, and voices were raised on both sides as the hearing moved toward a vote.

Oliver Spires, who identified himself as a minister of the Satanic Temple, said he worries that the bill’s prohibitions would prevent Satanists from performing wedding rituals on public property. Those ceremonies are often performed in state parks and require a satanic altar, he said.

“This bill would directly limit our religion. We do and already have performed satanic rituals on public property,” Spires said, “These buildings are democratically sacred, not religiously sacred, and the Constitution makes that clear.”

Spires said the Satanic Temple is a recognized church, with 501(c)(3) standing from the IRS as a charitable organization.

Another speaker who identified himself as a Satanist said the bill “goes against my right to choose or to have something to represent me and my faith and my religion. This is an obstacle. This is not right doing this.”

Hoffman insisted – repeatedly – that “Satanism is not a religion. It is the antithesis to religion. The antithesis of God is Satan.”

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He also challenged speakers’ claims that the bill is unconstitutional, saying it “in no way infringes on First Amendment rights.” Satanists would still enjoy the right to worship under the bill, he said, they just would not be able to erect displays of it on public property.

Hoffman was backed by Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, who pointed to prohibitions on the Ten Commandments in some public buildings.

“This is making a statement,” Rogers said. “Where Commandments have been removed from the courthouses, all faiths have been attacked. This is simply saying that satanic symbols cannot be displayed.”

The only witness to speak in support of the bill was Fountain Hills Councilmember Allen Skillicorn, who made clear that he was testifying for himself and not as an elected official. Skillicorn said Satanism is not about faith, but about “lack of faith. I believe these are expressions of mockery. They are meant to mock and demean other Arizonans.”

The bill passed on a 5-1 vote, with Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, casting the sole vote against it.

“This proposal isn’t even a dog whistle, it is a straight up attack on religion,” Mendez said. “He (Hoffman) is literally trying to erase an entire religion.”

News Reporter, Phoenix

Martin Dreyfuss expects to graduate in December 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication. Dreyfuss is a published journalist and poet, with experience in social media, play-by-play, management and content creation. He began working at age 10, when he began building his work ethic and professional experience in restaurants, sales and esports origination management.