A federal judge ruled on Monday that a school district in Pennsylvania must allow students to convene an After School Satan Club in its facilities, prompting a victory for advocates of free speech and religious freedom.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced the news in a statement on Monday, noting that the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania had found that “the sanctity of the First Amendment’s protections must prevail” in the case.
The ruling stipulated that the Saucon Valley School District must allow the After School Satan Club, which is sponsored by The Satanic Temple, to meet during the school year on three previously agreed–upon dates. However, the district won’t have to distribute permission slips for the club for students to take home.
The ACLU, in partnership with the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Dechert LLP, filed the lawsuit against the district in March, arguing that it had violated the First Amendment by prohibiting the club from meeting in the district’s facilities. The district had argued that it had prohibited the club because permission slips didn’t make it clear that the club wasn’t district–sponsored.
However, Judge John M. Gallagher wrote in the Monday ruling that “when confronted with a challenge to free speech, the government’s first instinct must be to forward expression rather than quash it. Particularly when the content is controversial or inconvenient. Nothing less is consistent with the expressed purpose of American government to secure the core, innate rights of its people.”
The Saucon Valley School District decision follows a similar controversy that made headlines when an After School Satan Club was allowed to meet earlier this year in Virginia.
The ACLU celebrated the Pennsylvania ruling as a victory for the First Amendment, noting in its statement that “it is critical that students’ First Amendment rights be respected both in and out of school.”
“The court’s decision recognizing that the After School Satan Club has the same right to meet on school grounds as other community groups is an important victory for free speech,” said ACLU of Pennsylvania legal director Vic Walczak. “We are pleased that the court recognized the district’s actions for what they were – an unconstitutional attempt to block an unpopular religious viewpoint from being expressed.”
The Satanic Temple, which has chapters in many major cities in the United States, promotes its own form of religious expression. It does not worship Satan, but rather follows a philosophy that “embraces rational inquiry removed from supernaturalism and archaic tradition–based superstitions,” according to the organization’s website.
The ruling in Pennsylvania is a reminder that the First Amendment protects the right of students to practice their religion and express their beliefs – even when those beliefs are controversial.