FFRF sues Memphis schools on behalf of The Satanic Temple

badge for the After School Satan Club, part of The Satanic Temple, featuring an illustrated Devil wearing graduation robes and making the Scouts Honor symbol with his hand

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of The Satanic Temple against the Shelby County Board of Education in Memphis, Tenn., over serious violations of the First Amendment.

Since November 2023, when The Satanic Temple sought to begin an afterschool club at Chimneyrock Elementary School, the school district has attempted to thwart it at every turn. Rather than allowing it to rent school facilities on the same terms as other nonprofit organizations (such as the Christian Good News Club), the Shelby County Board of Education, which operates the district, has chosen to defy the First Amendment. The district has charged The Satanic Temple discriminatory rental and security fees, refused to adequately communicate, and generally treated members of the educational group as second-class citizens.

Memphis-Shelby County Schools “cannot pick and choose how much it charges an organization renting its facilities based on how much it does or does not favor the organization’s viewpoint, the content of its speech, or its religious beliefs,” asserts FFRF’s lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee. The district’s “unconstitutional behavior has chilled The Satanic Temple’s speech and substantially burdened its ability to exercise its religiously motivated practice of offering inclusive, welcoming religious clubs at public schools.”

Further, the school district’s rental security fee policy vests unbridled discretion in an administrator to arbitrarily assess fees against disfavored groups, squarely in violation of the First Amendment, the suit contends. In Forsyth County, Ga., v. Nationalist Movement, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a policy that similarly vested a government administrator with unbridled discretion to arbitrarily assess security fees against disfavored groups violated the First Amendment.

The Satanic Temple does not worship or believe in the existence of Satan, FFRF’s legal complaint notes, instead regarding the literary figure as a representation of rejecting tyranny, championing the human mind and spirit, and seeking justice and egalitarianism for all. And The Satanic Temple promulgates the Seven Tenets, which promote rational and compassionate action. For example, the first tenet states: “One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason.”

The district’s discriminatory behavior gained a national spotlight last December when the district held a press conference in which school board members, administrators, and other officials expressed hostility toward The Satanic Temple and validated community members’ hostility toward the After School Satan Club’s then upcoming first meeting at Chimneyrock Elementary. A local news source later described the press conference: “Interim Superintendent Toni Williams, board chair and Rev. Althea Greene, and board member Mauricio Calvo passionately denounced [The Satanic Temple] while flanked by pastors of local churches.” ​​

Shortly after the press conference, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state/church watchdog with 40,000 nonreligious members, sent the first of three complaint letters to Superintendent Williams in response to the deeply concerning and discriminatory remarks. FFRF’s letter urged the district to continue to abide by the First Amendment and allow The Satanic Temple to rent facilities in accordance with the district’s own written policies. And the letter further explained that if the district bowed to the community’s attempt at a heckler’s veto, it would violate the Constitution by discriminating against The Satanic Temple on the basis of its viewpoint. The school district has not yet responded.

Instead, it notified The Satanic Temple in early January via a late-afternoon phone call that it had assessed a “special security fee” of $2,045.60 against The Satanic Temple for “additional security.” The district also charged The Satanic Temple another fee of $250 for “field lights.” The Good News Club, which describes itself as a bible-centered organization of born-again believers whose purpose is to evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ,” meets every week at Chimneyrock Elementary, and has not been assessed any “special security fee” or a fee for “field lights.” FFRF and The Satanic Temple requests to the district for a fee waiver were ignored, and so The Satanic Temple reluctantly paid the $2,295.60.

On Jan. 10, Memphis-Shelby County Schools finally allowed The Satanic Temple to hold the first meeting after-school at Chimneyrock Elementary. When club leaders arrived at Chimneyrock Elementary, they discovered that various district administrators, school board members and members of the clergy were already at the entrance of the building. On Jan. 12, The Satanic Temple submitted four rental requests for monthly meetings — with dilatory and unhelpful responses from the district.

The district has since Jan. 10 continued attempts to thwart The Satanic Temple and deter its club for students from meeting at Chimneyrock. The district has abruptly changed the meeting time, unceremoniously canceled rental applications, refused to communicate with the Temple regarding rental rates, and continued to treat the Temple unfavorably. It’s clear that such illegal tactics are fueled by hostility toward The Satanic Temple’s speech, viewpoint and religion by school board members, administrators and other officials.

The Satanic Temple seeks an order for prompt approval of its reservation requests by Memphis-Shelby County Schools. It also seeks to reserve Memphis-Shelby County Schools facilities without the district attempting to charge discriminatory rental fees. Accordingly, The Satanic Temple requests a declaratory judgment from the district court that the Shelby County Board of Education’s behavior violates the Free Speech Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and permanent injunctive relief, with nominal damages, enjoining the school district from continuing to discriminate against The Satanic Temple and the After School Satan Club.

FFRF Senior Litigation Counsel Patrick Elliott and FFRF Anne Nicol Gaylor Legal Fellow Sammi Lawrence prepared the complaint. This case is being handled in conjunction with FFRF’s local counsel, Attorney Scott Kramer and Attorney Matt Kezhaya. You can read the entire legal complaint here.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation serves as the nation’s largest association of freethinkers, with 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including almost 500 members and a chapter in Tennessee, and works as a state/church watchdog to safeguard the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.

Freedom From Religion Foundation