For the past two years, a group of enterprising Satanists have been fighting against Missouri's draconian abortion restrictions. This month, they're finally forging ahead in their extended legal battle: On Monday, a state appeals court heard oral arguments from the Satanic Temple, who claim that the state's abortion regulations infringe on their right to religious freedom.
The Satanic Temple is a fairly notorious organization; it describes itself as non-theistic religion centered on the literary figure of Satan. This particular group of Satanists don't worship the actual devil—they don't believe in the devil, or any sort of supernatural being, for that matter—but they contend that "religion can, and should, be divorced from superstition." Since their founding in 2013, they've taken religious freedom laws to their logical extreme as a form of political protest, essentially arguing that any legal exemptions that apply to Christians should apply to Satanists as well.
In May of 2015, a pseudonymous Satanic Temple member known as Mary Doe attempted to get an abortion in St. Louis. Under Missouri law, anyone who wants to terminate a pregnancy must go in person to the clinic in order to receive state-mandated counseling, then wait 72 hours before returning to get the actual procedure. At the mandatory counseling session, by law, women must be presented with an "informed consent" booklet. On its first page, in bold, is the following statement: "The life of each human being begins at conception. Abortion will terminate the right of a separate, unique, living human being."
This assertion is antithetical to two of the central tenets of Satanism: that one's body is inviolable, subject to one's own will alone, and that one's beliefs should conform to the best scientific understanding of the world. "There is no medical or scientific purpose for mandating an abortion waiting period, nor is the idea that 'life begins at conception' a scientific fact," explains Jex Blackmore, a spokesperson for the Temple. For this reason, Mary Doe presented a letter of exemption to staff at the Planned Parenthood in St. Louis, which was the only abortion provider operating in the state at the time.
"It is my deeply held religious belief an abortion does not terminate the life of a separate, unique, living human being. I therefore absolve you of any responsibility you may have to deliver the booklet to me. I also absolve you of any responsibility you may have to wait 72 hours before performing an abortion," the letter read, in part. "I respectfully request that you provide me with an abortion today."
Watch now: Inside the Satanic Temple's Fight for Your Abortion Rights
Planned Parenthood denied Doe's request, in compliance with state law, and she returned three days later and got the abortion. In the interim—while Doe was spending three needless days in a motel near the clinic, ostensibly so she'd have a chance to reflect on a choice she had already made—the Satanic Temple filed a both federal and state lawsuit on her behalf. By forcing a self-identified Satanist to receive informational materials stating that a non-viable fetus is a separate, living being and mandating that she should be refused abortion care for a full 72 hours, they argued, the state had violated her First Amendment rights.
Both cases were eventually dismissed. On the federal level, a judge ruled that Doe's case didn't have merit because she was no longer pregnant, and the state argued that the abortion restrictions aren't religiously motivated, and just happen to "coincide or harmonize with the tenets of some or all religions." Blackmore finds both of these arguments ridiculous, and tells Broadly the legal process has been frustrating so far.
"The Court claimed that because Mary was no longer pregnant, the laws could not infringe upon her religious beliefs. Obviously, this is absurd," she said. "The injury had already occurred. By that logic, nobody could sue for damages once the crime being committed was complete." As for the claim that the law just coincidentally corresponds with religious doctrine? "There's no secular reason to enforce the idea that life begins at conception," she says.
The oral arguments in the federal appeal will take place on September 20, and Blackmore says the state-level hearing on Monday went well, though she's "not so confident in the impartiality of Missouri's legal system, which is largely conservative." If the Satanic Temple succeeds in their appeal, she believes the decision will set an important constitutional precedent. And, ideologically, it will send a message to those in power: If the moral convictions of " those who believe in a supernatural being that demands total servitude under the threat of eternal damnation," as Blackmore puts it, are worth protecting under law, then the moral convictions of Satanists are worth protecting, too.