CNA Staff, Jun 11, 2020 / 18:00 pm
A federal appellate court has dismissed a second lawsuit filed by a member of the Satanic Temple against Missouri's informed consent abortion law, rejecting the argument that the law established Catholic religious belief by stating that life begins at conception.
"Any theory of when life begins necessarily aligns with some religious beliefs and not others," said U.S. Circuit Judge David R. Stras in a June 9 decision from the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. Under the plaintiff's theory, the decision said, "Missouri's only option would be to avoid legislating in this area altogether."
State law requires abortion providers to distribute a booklet from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services which includes the statement: "The life of each human being begins at conception. Abortion will terminate the life of a separate, unique, living human being."
A woman going by the pseudonym Judy Doe filed suit against the law, claiming it violated her religious freedom as a member of the Satanic Temple. The group does not believe in a literal Satan. Its philosophical and religious beliefs are somewhat flexible, but it tends to reject supernatural belief and to promote rationalism, individual liberty, secularism and "Enlightenment values." It claims to oppose tyranny and to identify with Satan's putative outsider role.
Doe's lawsuit also claimed that Missouri law violated her Satanist beliefs by requiring her to certify that she had received the informed consent booklet and that she had a chance to view an ultrasound at least 24 hours before the abortion. Her beliefs forbid her to comply with a law that "serves no medical purpose or purports to protect the interests of her human tissue." The plaintiff cited the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which bars excessive burdens on religious beliefs.
The appellate court said the lawsuit made no argument that the informed consent law is "anything other than 'neutral' and 'generally applicable'." The law in question must only pass a "rational-basis review," with a defense showing it rationally related to a legitimate government interest.
The decision cited the generally pro-abortion rights Supreme Court decision Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which itself said that informed consent laws represent "the legitimate purpose of reducing the risk that a woman may elect an abortion, only to discover later, with devastating psychological consequences, that her decision was not fully informed."
Doe's own description of the Satanic Temple said its membership includes both "politically aware Satanists" and "secularists and advocates for individual liberty."
"Arguably, her own description raises the possibility that her beliefs about abortion may be political, not religious," the court's decision said. "Nevertheless, we assume, but do not decide, that she has done enough by alleging that her beliefs are 'religious' and that she is a member of an organization that includes 'Satanists'."
W. James MacNaughton, a New Jersey lawyer, represented Doe. He told Courthouse News Service the ruling was not a surprise, claiming the appellate court panel was "very conservative" and "ignored the issue as others have done."
MacNaughton repeated claims that Catholicism influenced the law.
"It violates the establishment clause because it adopts the Catholic dogma that life begins at conception," he said.
According to the Pew Forum Religious Landscape Survey of 2014, 77% of Missouri residents identify as Christian, but only 16% are Catholic. Evangelical Protestants make up 36% of the Missouri populace.
"The state has no business telling people what to believe," the attorney continued. "The state has no business telling us that life begins at conception. We can decide that for ourselves."
Dennis Hudecki, a philosophy professor at Brescia University College in London, Ontario, told Courthouse News Service that there are "big arguments about when life begins," and some can argue for the belief that life begins from conception without a religious basis.
"They go back all the way to Aristotle and that the essence of a human doesn't change once it's formed from the beginning. It just gets older, but its essence doesn't change," said Hudecki, whose expertise includes abortion ethics. "I think the state's view that life begins at conception is on a rational basis and while there is rational disagreement, just because there's rational disagreement doesn't mean each side isn't being rational."
MacNaughton could appeal for an en banc hearing before the full court, and has 14 days from Tuesday to do so.
Judy Doe's lawsuit was rejected by a federal district judge last year.
A different self-professed Satanic Temple adherent in Missouri, who went by the name Mary Doe, had challenged the provisions under state law, including the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
MacNaughton also argued her case.
She cited Satanic Temple tenets professing a belief that a woman's body is "inviolable and subject to her will alone" and a belief that health decisions are made "based on the best scientific understanding of the world, even if the science does not comport with the religious or political beliefs of others." The complaint said a pregnancy is "human tissue" and "part of her body and not a separate, unique, living human being."
While the Missouri Court of Appeals thought the Mary Doe case raised "real and substantial constitutional claims," the Missouri Supreme Court rejected the lawsuit in a 2019 decision.
Chief Justice Zell M. Fischer, writing in a concurring opinion, said that the U.S. Supreme Court "has made it clear that state speech is not religious speech solely because it 'happens to coincide' with a religious tenet."
Controversy over the Satanic Temple has been ongoing for years, with critics arguing it is a political-cultural stunt. Temple founders have repeatedly asserted that it is a religion and not merely a hoax or performance, but the group's history sometimes contradicts their claims.
The group held a January 2013 demonstration at the Florida state capitol appearing to support Republican Gov. Rick Scott from a Satanist position. Legislation backed by the then-governor would allow school districts to have policies allowing students to read "inspirational messages" of their choice at school assemblies and sports events.
The demonstration featured an actor in the role of a satanic high priest. Several would-be minions and spokesman Lucien Greaves were also at the rally, saying the law would allow students to distribute Satanic messages. In the same month, Greaves was the contact listed on a casting call for an apparent mockumentary "about the nicest Satanic Cult in the world."
In a 2013 interview with Vice, Lucien Greaves revealed himself to be a man named Doug Mesner. He said a friend had conceived the Satanic Temple as "a 'poison pill' in the Church-State debate" to help expand the idea of religious agendas in public life.
Mesner has said the group planned to leverage the Supreme Court's 2014 Hobby Lobby religious freedom decision, which cited the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, to advance "a women's rights initiative."