Freedom Caucus leader wants to limit religious freedom by barring Satanic displays in Arizona
In a bit of irony, the leader of Arizona’s far-right Freedom Caucus has sponsored a bill that clearly infringes on the right to religious freedom.
Sen. Jake Hoffman, a Queen Creek Republican, wants to ban Satanic displays on public property in Arizona, claiming that Satanism is not a real religion, and therefore not owed protection under the First Amendment.
Hoffman is the sponsor of Senate Bill 1279, which he’s named the RESPECT Act, short for Reject Escalating Satanism by Preserving Essential Core Traditions.
“It’s the blatant unconstitutionality of it,” Hemant Mehta, editor of The Friendly Atheist, told the Arizona Mirror. “It just violates every intention of the First Amendment of the Constitution.
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Mehta doesn’t believe that Hoffman actually thinks that this bill will ever become law, with Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs ready and willing to veto it, but that it’s simply sending a message to his followers.
“It’s so hypocritical,” Mehta said. “This shows you how little Republicans like Hoffman actually care about freedom. He wants freedom for people like him and no freedom for people he disagrees with. It’s ridiculous.”
The bill was the subject of a heated debate during a Senate Government Committee meeting Wednesday, where Hoffman, who chairs the committee, repeatedly interrupted members of the public testifying against the bill.
He spoke over them to correct them about what he said were their misinterpretation of it and admonished members of the audience for making faces and gestures at him and the other lawmakers on the committee. He also accused a member of The Satanic Temple of being disingenuous in her testimony, something that members of the public would not be allowed to say about Hoffman’s claims without being told they were in violation of the legislature’s rules against impugning the motivations of a lawmaker.
The bill passed through the committee with a vote of 5-1, with the only Democrat present, Sen. Juan Mendez, of Tempe, voting against. The two other Democratic members of the committee were absent.
Hoffman, who is Christian, described the intentions of the bill as “extremely clear” but he didn’t explain what “essential core traditions” he was looking to preserve, and claimed that the bill did not infringe on any religious group’s First Amendment rights.
“Satan is antithetical to religion,” Hoffman said. “The antithesis of religion is Satan.”
He added that a memorial or altar to Satan on public property would be a desecration of that property.
Lucien Greaves, cofounder and spokesperson for The Satanic Temple, described the bill as embarrassing and told the Mirror that it displayed Hoffman’s “clear ignorance of the law.”
He added that the proposal should not only concern Satanists, but if passed and upheld by the courts, it could have far-reaching ramifications for other civil liberties.
Mendez questioned whether the true reason Hoffman authored the bill was because Satanism was insulting to Christianity, but Hoffman denied that.
Numerous members of the public, many of them members of the Arizona chapter of The Satanic Temple, called out Hoffman for backing a bill that clearly violates both the U.S. and Arizona constitutions.
Among them was Minister Oliver Spires, who refuted Hoffman’s claim that Satanism isn’t a religion, explaining that the IRS has granted The Satanic Temple the same non-profit status it gives to any other tax-exempt church that operates as a charity.
“This bill would directly limit our religion,” Spires said.
While Sen. Janae Shamp, R-Surprise, who voted to forward the bill, said that it doesn’t violate the First Amendment because religious displays aren’t allowed on public property anyway, the bill doesn’t mention any other religious figures — rather, it only applies to displays that honor Satan. The First Amendment forbids Congress from elevating one religion over any other.
Micah Mangione told the lawmakers that he does not believe that the goal of Hoffman’s bill is clear, but that it’s an attempt to set a precedent that could result in future legislatures targeting Paganism or Islam and banning their displays from public property.
“Does any religion matter that is not your Christian religion?” Mangione asked Hoffman.
Hoffman said that arguing that Satanism is a religion is a “ludicrous statement,” adding that Satan is “universally known to be explicitly the enemy of God,” and that “literally everyone” agrees with that statement.
“That’s not a point that is debatable,” Hoffman said.
Members of The Satanic Temple were quick to disagree and attempt to debate him.
The Satanic Temple does not believe in a literal Satan, but describes itself as nontheistic and committed to principles such as encouraging benevolence and empathy, opposing injustice and undertaking noble pursuits. The church fights for abortion rights and has erected displays memorializing Satan in state houses in response to Christian displays, like nativity scenes, in those same public buildings.
Local liberal political activist Joshua Gray, who said he fought for everyone’s freedom of religion during two combat tours in the Marines, said that the bill was insulting to the very concept of religious liberty.
“I fought for everyone’s freedom — everyone’s,” Gray said, adding that the Constitution does not specify that Abrahamic religions are somehow better or more protected than any other religion.
“The unconstitutional nature of this bill is not a matter of opinion,” he said.
The only member of the public who spoke in favor of the bill was Allen Skillicorn, a Fountain Hills Town Council member. Skillicorn, who frequently attends legislative committee meetings to comment on bills, said that Satanic displays are not protected by freedom of religion because Satanists don’t actually believe in Satan.
Mendez asked his fellow committee members why he was the only one there who seemed to want to defend the U.S. Constitution.
“Any religion viewed by the sponsor as a desecration to Christianity is no longer safe in Arizona,” Mendez said.
Hoffman ended his argument saying that he thought it was unacceptable that someone could be charged criminally for knocking over a Satanic display in Iowa, but that there were no consequences for having a “gay sex orgy” in a U.S. Senate building.
Hoffman was referencing the arrest of a Mississippi man for destroying a display by The Satanic Temple in Iowa’s Capitol building, as well as a seemingly unrelated leaked video of men having sex in a U.S. Senate hearing room in Washington, D.C.. Capitol Police recently said they would not file charges, as they found no evidence that a crime had occurred.
Mehta said he hopes that more people on both sides of the aisle, including Christians, speak out against this bill.
“It’s not the government’s job to punish religious groups because one Republican senator and his buddies don’t like them,” Mehta said.
Only 19 people and organizations officially registered in favor of the bill, with 287 registered against it, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona.