Judge, Satanic Temple at Odds in Fight Over City Council Prayer Refusal
BOSTON — A federal judge in Boston has admonished a satanic temple for adopting legal ploys that she said are distracting from its otherwise “meaningful legal challenge” aimed at it being allowed to lead the prayer that begins every Boston City Council session.
But Lucien Greaves, co-founder of The Satanic Temple headquartered in Salem, Massachusetts, told The Well News the court is essentially giving the city a pass and thwarting the temple’s efforts to conduct discovery in the case that will prove that it’s been wronged.
The rebuke by U.S. District Judge Angel Kelley, first reported by the National Law Journal, came as she granted the city’s emergency motion for a protective order and a motion to quash a deposition of recently elected Mayor Michelle Wu, ruling the deposition notice was only designed to draw the public’s attention to the case.
“The surviving claims in this matter represent an issue of first impression in the First Circuit,” Kelley wrote in a 15-page order. “As the Court noted in its decision on Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss … it is not at all clear whether the invocation practice of the city council violates the First Amendment, meaning plaintiff has brought a meaningful legal challenge with potentially broad effect.
“Distracting from the significance of that challenge with tactics plaintiff’s counsel facially admitted to employing in order to get the attention of the public and the city’s now highest-ranking government official does a disservice to the gravity of the constitutional claims at issue,” she said.
The Satanic Temple has a Boston-area membership of at least 2,449, according to court documents.
It sued the city council in January 2021, arguing that as the council allows various mainstream religions to speak — and never invites The Satanic Temple to participate — the First Amendment rights of the church and its members are being violated.
The city responded by arguing that its method of choosing opening prayer speakers is not the least bit discriminatory — city councilors are simply allowed to invite priests, pastors, rabbis or imams of their choice from the city’s many distinct neighborhoods.
Last year, a different federal judge, U.S. District Court Judge Allison Burroughs, sided with the city in so far as she ruled that councilors’ ability to invite religious representatives of their choice is not itself discriminatory.
But even if the city cleared the bar for violating the 14th Amendment, Burroughs still said it could be running afoul of the establishment clause, where the case law on this subject is far less settled.
The Satanic Temple is also pursuing a claim that the city’s lack of an invite to perform the opening prayer violates the free exercise clause of the Massachusetts Constitution.
In a ruling handed down earlier this month, Judge Kelley took exception to The Satanic Temple’s serving a subpoena on then-City Councilor Michelle Wu for a Nov. 2, 2021, deposition at the church’s Salem, Massachusetts, location.
On the day she was served with the subpoena, Oct. 22, 2021, Wu was already the frontrunner in the mayoral race. The city responded that Wu would be unavailable to appear.
Instead, it provided The Satanic Temple with a list of 47 other people “who might possess relevant information” and who would be “more convenient, less burdensome and less expensive” to depose than Wu would be under the electoral circumstances.
But Greaves said the temple believed Election Day was the perfect day to depose the then-councilwoman.
“After all, it’s Election Day and there’s nothing for a candidate to do but wait to find out what their future job will be,” he said. “They could have come back and offered another date for the deposition, but they didn’t do that. Instead, they immediately went to the judge and tried to get sanctions against us while protecting Michelle Wu from answering any questions at all.”
As for the list of alternates the city put forward, Greaves conceded the temple could have tried to talk to them. “But what’s to prevent any one of them from pointing to somebody else and saying ‘they can answer your questions,’ just like Wu did?”
Judge Kelley’s view of how events unfolded both before and after Election Day is clear from her latest opinion.
She called it “exceptionally bad faith to intentionally notice deposition for a date and time when a party knows the deponent will be unavailable or greatly inconvenienced.”
Kelley was also unhappy with the assertion by attorney Matt Kezhaya, who is representing The Satanic Temple, that he has “a sworn duty to do anything short of breaking the law to see to it my client’s goals are recognized.”
“This is not the case,” she wrote. “Rules such as the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct (and other states’ equivalents), various ethics rules and guidelines, and the Rules of Civil Procedure govern attorney and litigant conduct in all sorts of ways that reach beyond conduct that is simply illegal — and they do so precisely to prevent the type of abuse of process plaintiff’s counsel has employed here.”
Finally, Kelley spoke about the motives of The Satanic Temple requesting to only depose Wu.
“Despite noting it directed its requests for an invitation to multiple city councilors … The Satanic Temple is notably silent … as to who those councilors are, and why none of them have been noticed for depositions,” the judge wrote.
But Greaves said the temple had a very good reason to focus on the soon-to-be mayor-elect — it was City Council Member Michele Wu who signed the letter saying the Satanists couldn’t deliver an invocation.
“That’s why we went to her directly,” he said. “Who better to answer these questions than somebody who actually signed the form denying our ability to speak before the city council?”
Greaves also took issue with the judge’s criticism of Kezhaya.
“The opinion makes it sound like our attorney engaged in some kind of crass effort to merely drum up publicity for the case,” he said. “But my feeling is, what’s wrong with wanting the public to know what’s going on here?
“We feel it’s in the public’s interest to know that a mayoral candidate or a mayor is doing things that are so far astray from established constitutional law,” he said.
“Frankly, for the court to essentially declare that she’s immune from being questioned through a standard discovery procedure leaves us wondering where we’re supposed to go from here,” he said, adding, “I just don’t think our religious liberty or free speech or First Amendment rights are dependent upon whether or not somebody thinks we’re acting like assholes or we’re being too bold in asserting them.”
Coursing through every aspect of the case, of course, is the public perception of what Satanism is and what its adherents are or are not.
Greaves was asked to describe what the temple’s members believe in.
“Well, it’s a nontheist religion,” he said. “We don’t believe in the supernatural. So Satan is a metaphor for us. This is kind of a mythic framework that we work with on a metaphorical level to kind of contextualize our goals, our ethics, our kind of community narrative structure, that type of thing.
“And a lot of our members are people who grew up in the Judeo-Christian culture but came away from the superstition they saw inherent in mainstream religion. And they’ve really found a community with one another.
“Now, I know there are people out there who say, ‘Isn’t this just about some kind of activism?’ Or, ‘If you’re not theist, why do you call yourself a religion? Why don’t you call yourself something else?’” Greaves said.
“And I really don’t know how to break through that barrier to get people to understand that as Satanists we feel a religious identity that is just as meaningful to our community as your religion is to your community.
“All I can say is, I feel, in every way, that this is a religious identity for our active followers that is meaningful for them on a personal level,” Greaves continued. “This isn’t just a tool that they use to provoke a reaction from other people. And, you know, I understand that people can doubt that. On the face of it, the things we do are bombastic-looking.
“We fully understand that people make those assumptions, and it’s up to us to disabuse them of them,” he said. “But judges should be held to a higher standard, judges should not make those assumptions. Judges should, in every case, look at the facts as they come before them.”
Presented with the hypothetical of pursuing the same rights claim under another name or banner, Greaves rejected the notion.
“This [controversy] is entirely about our being The Satanic Temple,” he said. “And I don’t think the solution is for us to change our name. I think it’s dangerous that people measure things in this way.
“In my view, I think people should understand the value in defending The Satanic Temple,” he continued. “Even if you have a distaste for the idea of Satanism, or dislike self-identified Satanists, you should realize that there’s a higher priority to defending religious liberty and not expanding government authority to the point where it places parameters upon religious identity in ways that undermine the most foundational liberties that our republic is premised upon. I think if people don’t understand that, they don’t understand our most basic core values as Americans.”
Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue