Satanic Temple, Inc. v. Saucon Valley Sch. Dist., 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75001, (E.D. Pa. May 1, 2023). Because a School District allowed various community groups to meet within school facilities, the After School Satan Club was also entitled to meet within school facilities. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted a preliminary injunction directing the School District to allow the After School Satan Club to use District facilities in the same manner as other community groups.
SUMMARY AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND
The Satanic Temple, Inc. (“TST”) is a religious organization sponsoring the After School Satan Club (“ASSC”) at several public schools across the country. TST states its members do not “worship Satan,” but instead regard “Satan … as a literary figure who represents a metaphorical construct of rejecting tyranny, championing the human mind and spirit, and seeking justice and egalitarianism for all.” TST sponsors the ASSC “to provide young people with an alternative to other religious clubs that meet on campus after school.”
On February 1, 2023, TST applied to hold ASSC meetings after school hours at facilities of the Saucon Valley School District (“District”). At the time, the District allowed other non-school groups to use District facilities during after school hours. These groups included Girls on the Run, the Boy Scouts, the Joetta [Sports] and Beyond Camp, the Saucon Valley Youth Sports Association, Saucon Valley Youth Basketball, and the Good News Club.
The District originally approved TST’s request to use school facilities, but then rescinded its approval after being inundated with complaints from community members, including a voicemail threat to “come and f**king shoot everybody.” The District explained it rescinded approval of ASSC because TST published and endorsed Facebook advertisements for ASSC without disclaimers that the club was not sponsored by the District. The District explained these advertisements violated Board Policy 707, which required such a disclaimer by all community groups using school facilities.
TST filed a complaint and motion for preliminary injunction against the District, alleging the District’s reliance on School Board Policy 707 was pretext for discrimination against TST because of its controversial views. TST also alleged discrimination because the District refused to distribute flyers to District students advertising the ASSC.
The Court granted TST’s motion for preliminary injunction and ordered the District to allow the ASSC to meet after school hours within District facilities. The Court agreed with TST that the District’s reliance on Policy 707 was pretext for viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The Court explained under the First Amendment if a school district allows any non-school community groups to use its facilities, then the district must allow all non-school community groups to use its facilities, regardless of the viewpoint of the group. The Court explained the District was not permitted to enact a “heckler’s veto” and restrict a group because of complaints from the public.
The District argued Policy 707 applied to all community groups using school facilities and required those groups to include a disclaimer in any advertisements that the group was not sponsored by the District. However, the Court noted other community groups, such as the Good News Club (a religious student group) published advertisements that did not include the disclaimer required by Policy 707. The District did not enforce Policy 707 against those groups.
In response, the District argued TST’s failure to include a disclaimer created confusion and several community members believed the District was sponsoring ASSC. The Court disagreed, citing several e-mails from community members who understood the District was not sponsoring ASSC, and was not legally permitted to discriminate between non-school groups, but nonetheless urged the District to remove the ASSC from District buildings regardless of the legal repercussions.
Finally, the Court cited several e-mails from the Superintendent of the District, expressing frustration with the ASSC and disagreement with the TST’s views.
Based on this evidence, the Court held that the District’s reliance on Policy 707 was pretext for viewpoint discrimination against TST.
On the other hand, the Court did not require the District to distribute flyers to District students advertising the ASSC, as requested by TST. The Court explained that prior to TST’s request to use school facilities, the District implemented a policy to stop distributing flyers on behalf of non-school groups. Because the District applied this policy evenhandedly across all community groups, the Court held the District did not discriminate against TST by refusing to distribute its flyers.
If a school district allows any community group to use its facilities, it must allow all community groups to use facilities in the same manner and degree, regardless of the controversial nature of a specific group. If a District is concerned that an unpopular group may request the use of school district facilities, the District should consult with its solicitor to amend the District’s facilities usage policy in advance of any such request.