Legal Issues

Can Oklahoma Keep a Satanic Statue off Its Capitol Lawn?


This artist's rendering provided by the Satanic Temple shows a proposed monument that the New York-based Satanic group wants to place at the Oklahoma State Capitol

Photograph by Satanic Temple/AP Photo

This artist's rendering provided by the Satanic Temple shows a proposed monument that the New York-based Satanic group wants to place at the Oklahoma State Capitol

Lawmakers should know by now that erecting a Ten Commandments monument in front of a government building makes for a long legal fight.

It has been more than a decade since a federal court order forced Alabama to remove a commandments statue placed outside a courthouse, and the state’s chief justice who refused the order was subsequently removed by a state ethics panel. Two years later, a fight over the commandments at the Texas capitol made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the original monument but ruled against copies placed in Kentucky courthouses. Last August, meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a granite rendering of the holy tablets that was erected on the lawn of the Oklahoma capitol. The statue was largely funded by State Representative Mike Ritze, a Republican who donated $10,000 of his own money toward the project.

But now there’s a new development in the separation-of-commandments-and-state issue. The Satanic Temple, a New York City religious group with a mission to “encourage benevolence and empathy” and a penchant for the pentagram symbol, has sought to donate to Oklahoma’s capitol its own statue: a seven-foot-tall image of a goat-headed Satan flanked by two adoring children.

Other organizations have since followed suit. PETA now wants to hang a banner that encourages people to stop eating meat, the Universal Society of Hinduism wants to donate a statue of the Hindu deity Hanuman, and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has asked to donate some sort of pasta-related memorial. Oklahoma, as to be expected, is not amused. In response to the flood of unusual memorial requests, the state voted to place a ban on new statues at the statehouse.

Bloomberg Businessweek spoke to Lucien Greaves, co-founder and spokesman for the Satanic Temple, about the group’s proposed monument, the standoff with state officials over the attempted donation, and the prospects for bringing Satan to the Oklahoma statehouse.

First, tell me a little bit about the Satanic Temple. What do you guys believe in?
We organized in the beginning of 2013. Thousands of people have joined officially online, but of course their level of activity ranges dramatically. There’s a core group of us who are actually active. We look at Satan as a literary construct, not so much in line with the Christian demonology but more as he is in Anatole France’s [1914 book], Revolt of the Angels, where he rebels against arbitrary authority in favor of personal sovereignty.

So do you “slaughter goats and drink their blood in public,” as a religious panel on Fox News implied?
Oh, no. Not at all. I think we’ve made that clear. I’m atheist, myself.

OK, so tell me a little bit about this monument. How did the idea come about?
We have members in Oklahoma. They reached out to us and told us about the Ten Commandments statue being placed there. When the ACLU sued, the state responded by saying it had actually envisioned a monument park and additional monuments could be added. We felt that was an invitation for more statues, so we decided to donate one.

How did you raise the money?
We have an Indiegogo campaign and hit our fundraising goal [of $17,000] yesterday morning. Right now we’re over $22,000, and people are still donating, so the monument will definitely be made. We have a 3D rendering of what it’ll look like, and we’re currently shopping around to find out where to get it constructed.

The statue depicts a goat-man and children. What does it mean?
Originally I had this idea of a four-legged goat creature with a saddle that children could sit upon, but it ended up looking a little too silly. So we went with this. It’s an image of Baphemot, the occult figure that the Knights Templar were accused of worshiping in the 12th century during the crusades. In a way, it represents the hysterical witch-hunting fears of the past and our new empathetic drive to look more rationally at things.

How have people reacted to all this?
Surprisingly, the flood of support we’ve gotten far outweighs the hate mail. A lot of e-mails we get from people start out with them letting us know that they consider themselves Christian but support us on the basis of constitutional freedom. They understand we’re not assaulting them. We’re upholding our freedom to maintain a pluralistic nation where all voices can be heard and where we don’t discriminate on the basis of religion or creed.

What do you think about Oklahoma’s moratorium on new statues?
We haven’t been made aware of it officially. When we decided to donate a statue, we went through all the proper channels. We submitted a letter to the Capitol Preservation Commission, and they sent us back the paperwork we needed to fill out. All this happened before the moratorium, so as far as I’m concerned it shouldn’t apply to us retroactively. I’m not sure if the Hindus or PETA got in before the moratorium passed, but we did. No one has told us that there’d be a change in our application status.

I have to be honest with you, it seems unlikely that the Oklahoma government is going to erect a statue to Satan in front of its capitol. What will you do if you get denied?
That would be then something for the lawyers to hash out. But if we fight the battle to the bitter end, and it turns out we can’t have our statue, we’ll try to place it elsewhere. We’ll move on to the next place.

So you’re willing to go to court on this?
Oh yeah.

Suddath is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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