The Satanic Temple Sought to Upend Missouri Abortion Law. Their Plans Went to Hell

The Satanic Temple Sought to Upend Missouri Abortion Law. Their Plans Went to Hell

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Satanic Temple spokesman Lucien Greaves is trying to wrest religious privilege from "supernaturalists." - KAYLA SCHIERBECKER
Satanic Temple spokesman Lucien Greaves is trying to wrest religious privilege from "supernaturalists."

On a Sunday three months after Mary Doe's abortion, the co-founder and national face of the Satanic Temple entered the campus of Washington University in St. Louis. He had been invited as the keynote speaker at a conference of atheists.

"Lucien Greaves" (real name: Doug Mesner) co-founded the Satanic Temple in 2012, and almost immediately established its distinctly tongue-in-cheek style of activism. Greaves, a prolific writer and quick-witted debater, became the face of the temple through a newspaper column in the Orlando Weekly and as a guest on cable news shows.

A pale figure with a severe haircut and a commitment to black clothing, Greaves seemed to embody his role as the devil's spokesman. He arrived on campus surrounded by admirers and members of the local chapter (most of whom also sported dark ensembles). Some managed a vendor booth with Satanist T-shirts, buttons and mugs. There was even a stack of Satan-themed children's activity books, published as part of the group's attempt to create "After-School Satan Clubs" in elementary schools.

Despite its Luciferian aesthetic, the Temple actually rejects belief in a literal devil. Satan is presented as metaphor or "cultural construct," Greaves explained, a symbol for defying authority and embracing skepticism and independence.

In the Temple's perspective, the contradiction of a secular group with a religious belief system isn't so contradictory. A faithless faith can still have tenets and rituals. The belief system reflects sincere values, which, Greaves argued, makes it no different than the evangelical groups that hold after-school programs or erect stone tablets on courthouse lawns.

"If you concede that religion belongs solely to supernaturalists," Greaves said, "you're saying that your own deeply held values, your own sense of cultural identity, isn't as valuable as that of the superstitious."

At that time, Mary Doe's lawsuit was barely three months old. Greaves said he expected the litigation to be "a slow and costly process."

"But," he added quickly, "I feel like we actually have a really good shot, and the lawyers feel that we have a really good shot. Even if we don't win, but we put up a credible enough fight, I think you'll find people thinking more logically about where the plateau is, realizing that when you do open the door to these kinds of privileges and exemptions, you have to be prepared to offer them to opposing views as well as your own."

Greaves' prediction of a slow and costly process would prove accurate, but at the beginning of the ride, the legal effort already seemed to be paying dividends in publicity, helping establish the Temple as more than just a group of secular occultists pranking religion. These Satanists were serious. They had lawyers.

Greaves' optimism was noteworthy in retrospect. He peppered his interview with erudite points about the Temple's philosophy and its commitment to fighting for civil rights of women like Doe. In reality, unbeknownst to reporters and to all but a small circle of Temple's highest officers, the Temple's relationship with its poster plaintiff was months away from cracking.

In Greaves' entourage that day in St. Louis was Nikki Moungo. An atheist activist and a member of both the Temple's national council and the St. Louis chapter's board, she'd always liked a good fight against unfair religious privilege. She had recently notched a victory in opposing a plan to install a sign proclaiming "In God We Trust" on city property in her hometown of Ballwin.

After Doe went from abortion charity case to the Temple's chosen plaintiff, Moungo took on the role of handler.

"I know what it's like to be a single mother in Missouri with low income," Moungo says today. "Her predicament is pretty common; I've been in that situation. I know what it's like to get an abortion in Missouri."

The assignment became something close to a full-time job, with Moungo serving as mom, advocate and arbitrator. Doe didn't have a stable living situation, and she was raising a young daughter while living in a hotel, its price discounted for the cleaning services she provided. Other times, she wound up at Moungo's home in Ballwin. Moungo felt largely on her own as Doe's support group.

"She was getting frustrated and wanted answers from me, answers I couldn't get my hands on," Moungo recalls. "We were both feeling shut out."

It wasn't just the lack of updates from Greaves or the New Jersey law firm hired by the Temple to handle the lawsuits. The case had made a huge media splash, but Moungo says the national board repeatedly blocked her attempts to organize local rallies around it.

To Moungo, it became clear the campaign was a "Temple effort, not a Missouri effort."

"You're separating the action and the people who are affected by the laws, and it really didn't make any sense to me," she says. "It became really weird to us, seeing other chapters in other states promoting our reproductive rights cases without knowing really our laws or being able to address those matters with knowledge."

In a recent interview, Doe describes feeling similarly frustrated by the Temple's publicity strategy. She was hoping to see a wave of local support, an acknowledgement that the front lines of this battle had been drawn in Missouri. Her suggestions led nowhere, and she bristled as the Temple's reproductive rights campaign turned to gross-out performance art.

Two months after Doe's lawsuit was filed, the Temple's Detroit chapter produced an eye-catchingly occult counter-protest outside a Planned Parenthood location in Michigan. Religious groups surrounded the clinic, some carrying signs amplifying the myth that the clinic "harvests baby parts." Satanists portrayed priests, who reverently doused two kneeling actresses with milk. Another member held a sign stating, "AMERICA IS NOT A THEOCRACY. END FORCED MOTHERHOOD."

Doe says she felt shamed by the suggestion that she'd been nearly "forced" into motherhood. She also wondered what kind of message the protest had sent to possible allies.

Over time, she stewed on the unfairness of the Temple's overall strategy, perceiving that Detroit's shock theater had been chosen over her own suggestions.

"I thought it was a giant mockery," Doe says. "Maybe it was trolling, maybe they thought they were doing something effective. I didn't appreciate it whatsoever. That's not how I wanted to be represented, it's not how women in those circumstances should be represented."

Moungo, too, was increasingly embittered by the national board members' refusal to grant any sort of Missouri demonstration in support of Doe's lawsuit. Moungo proposed a public demonstration in Jefferson City with supporters wearing "I am Mary" T-shirts, but a Temple lawyer suggested that Missouri Satanists merely wear the shirts to a legal hearing.

Despite the early headlines around its fundraiser for Doe's abortion, the Temple now seemed intent on keeping its activities in Missouri low profile. Moungo, who felt responsible for the well-being of the Temple's plaintiff, felt a distinct lack of concern from Temple brass.

"It got to the point where I didn't feel like they cared about her or what was really going on here in Missouri. It was like Temple wanted the case without the plaintiff."

Nikki Moungo no longer sees the Satanic Temple as "reproductive heroes." - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
Nikki Moungo no longer sees the Satanic Temple as "reproductive heroes."

While the Temple's key plaintiff was stewing in discontent, its hired attorney was grappling with a legal problem. In December 2015, a Cole County judge dismissed the Temple's case, ruling that it had not shown that Missouri violated Doe's rights under the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA.

Adopted in 2003, the law prohibits the state from restricting "a person's free exercise of religion," defined as "an act or refusal to act that is substantially motivated by religious belief, whether or not the religious exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief."

Temple's attorney James MacNaughton had focused his argument on the informed consent pamphlet handed to patients, which defines the life of a fetus as "a separate, unique, living human." That position is not based in science, MacNaughton says.

"It is a state-approved doctrine for when a human life comes into existence, which is fundamentally a religious principle," the attorney argues. "It's preaching that tenet in the waiting rooms of Planned Parenthood."

But the question of when life begins was never argued before the Missouri courts. Instead the Temple was forced to argue about RFRA's definition of "an act," which, according to the state's attorneys, proved that Doe's rights were intact.

That's because Doe wasn't technically required to read the pamphlet, only to have the opportunity to do so. Similarly, the state argued, Doe wasn't required to view the sonogram or listen to her baby's heartbeat, only to be given the "opportunity."

In a motion to dismiss, the attorney general's office cited Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the very U.S. Supreme Court decision that the Satanic Temple had bragged about using as leverage.

Missouri's argument went like this: In Hobby Lobby, federal law had tried to force a corporation with religious shareholders to buy contraceptive coverage for employees, an "act prohibited by their beliefs." But no one was forcing Doe into a similar "act" on which to judge her claims. After all, no Satanic tenet prohibits members from having an "opportunity" to view a sonogram. Same with the "opportunity" to read (or not read) a pamphlet. Nor is there a Satanic tenet specifying that abortions must occur in under 72 hours.

Seven months after the Temple filed its suit, Cole County Circuit Court Judge Jon Beetem agreed with the state's motion to dismiss, writing that Doe had "fail[ed] to allege facts which if true, state a claim for relief under the RFRA."

The Temple vowed to file an amended lawsuit in state court. It already had a second lawsuit underway in federal court, again with Mary Doe at its center: It alleged that Missouri's laws unconstitutionally privileged Christian beliefs about life and abortion over those of Satanists like Doe.

The federal case was filed a month after Doe's abortion. Crucially, that meant the plaintiff was no longer pregnant. MacNaughton had to prove Doe nevertheless had standing, and so he argued that she had in fact suffered "stigmatic injury" when she was presented with the religious-based "opportunities" at the Planned Parenthood clinic.

"Those injuries did not go away after she had her abortion," MacNaughton explains now, though he also concedes that the scenario weakened his legal arsenal.

"That was a different argument than the liberty rights and privacy rights that underlie Roe v. Wade," he explains, "since those rights disappear once you have the abortion."

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