Satanic Activity Book Distribution in Schools

activity-bookIn a press release dated September 12, 2014, The Satanic Temple (an organization I co-founded and for which I act as spokesperson) announced that it would seek to disseminate Satanic literature to students in the Orange County school district (FL), where the acting board has already allowed for the “passive distribution” of Evangelical materials. Being quite clear regarding our intentions, I stated in the press release that, “[w]e [TST] would never seek to establish a precedent of disseminating our religious materials in public schools because we believe our constitutional values are better served by respecting a strong separation of Church and State. However, if a public school board is going to allow religious pamphlets and full bibles to be distributed to students — as is the case in Orange County, Florida — we think the responsible thing to do is to ensure that these students are given access to a variety of differing religious opinions, as opposed to standing idly by while one religious voice dominates the discourse and delivers propaganda to youth.”

The story caught the attention of the national media, and during subsequent interviews I made certain points quite clear:

•I reiterated incessantly that our efforts are in reply to the encroachment of Evangelical materials being placed in public schools — an antidote to unpleasant prospect of a single religious voice propagandizing within the school district’s open forum.

•I stressed that the next open forum for religious literature distribution within the Orange County school district was not until January.

•As the open forum is not until January, I also made clear that The Satanic Temple was still in the process of compiling and formatting all the literature we intended to submit to the school board in Orange County.

Not surprisingly, the fact that the literature dissemination was not until January was almost universally ignored. In an effort to make the story seem more immediate, and maybe for lack of interest in the finer details, most outlets merely reported that The Satanic Temple was seeking to distribute their materials, not when.

Things inevitably took a turn for the stupid when a CBS affiliate in Tampa inaccurately reported that our Activity Book was currently “flooding” the Orange County schools. The blind outrage of idiots was predictable. A Catholic blog, ‘America Needs Fatima’, operated by one Robert Ritchie, began an e-mail campaign directed at the school district. Ritchie, laughably, sought to “‘save’ children from the ‘horror’” of The Satanic Temple’s Big Book of Activities. Ritchie’s uninformed uproar is reported to have resulted in some 8000 emails to the Orange County school board’s chairman and vice chair.

The Orlando Sentinel, in an effort to correct the story, inadvertently confused matters further. In the piece, district counsel for Orange County schools, Woody Rodriguez, is reported to have “confirmed” that The Satanic Temple “hasn’t approached the district with a formal request.” In fact, we reached out to the school district soon after our press release, and our materials have since been submitted for their approval. The school district now — aside from seeming to pretend they’ve had no contact with us — asserts that our materials must be approved by them, as if to say they are at liberty to arbitrarily deny us. They are not. We have been quite careful to make certain that our literature is responsible and age-appropriate. Their assessment of our material does not give them the latitude to exercise viewpoint discrimination. The bureaucratic process is moot: the Orange County school board’s decision to allow religious materials in their schools necessitates that they allow our material as well. We will certainly fight any decision to the contrary, and I am quite confident we’ll win.

The Orlando Sentinel piece reported weeks old information stating that TST doesn’t have printed materials on-hand, when, in fact, now we do (as can easily be found online, available for purchase). Perplexingly, the piece also reports, erroneously, that we don’t have a local group to pass the materials out. We do have local personnel, and we did weeks ago when the story first broke. Also confusing is the fact that the Orlando Sentinel cites as having posted “inaccurate information” about our campaign, when in fact Salon’s piece is accurate.

The Orlando Sentinel piece, while misinformed, could be seen as an honest effort to correct some false assumptions. However, this piece’s inaccuracies would inspire the hysterical stupidity of one Liam O’Brien blogging for Melville House Publishers, who apparently inferred from it all that the entire story was bunk from start to finish. O’Brien, seeming to have only read the Orlando Sentinel piece, and having failed to understand it, ignorantly attacked Salon, HuffPo, and Vox, for allegedly reporting that The Satanic Temple is currently distributing materials in schools, when in reality, each of those outlets correctly reported that we merely seek to do so.

O’Brien — in what appears to have been an effort to get as many things wrong as possible in the fewest words — states, “the ‘coloring books’ don’t exist in anything but PDF form, nobody’s distributing them, and even if they wanted to they couldn’t.” As stated, at the time O’Brien posted this piece, print versions of the Activity Book (mysteriously referred to as a “coloring book”, in quotes) had been available online for weeks. But where does O’Brien get the idea that we can’t disseminate the books “even if [we] wanted to”? It seems O’Brien’s limited comprehension interpreted the fact that the district will first review The Satanic Temple material to somehow mean just that. Apparently priding himself for an ability to see through the noise, O’Brien knowingly advises that anybody who sees a news item related to me should take it “with a brick of salt.”

So there it is — a willful ignorance of certain facts led to a grossly incorrect story, which led to a misinformed effort at correction, which led to the least correct dispatch of them all. All the while, The Satanic Temple presses on through the process of getting its materials assembled and approved for January’s open forum. The outcome, of course, remains to be seen, but until January it may be best to take all the news reports “with a brick of salt”.