Officials at the U.S. Naval Academy are having a hell of a time with a small group of professed Satanists at the school in Annapolis, Md.
A handful of midshipmen have been pressing the academy to accommodate them as members of the Satanic Temple, a recognized non-theistic religious group in the U.S. The dispute started with a request for space to meet and discuss their beliefs and has since devolved into a war of words between the U.S. navy outfit and temple members.
READ MORE: The rise of the Satanic Temple in Canada
The controversy stems from an email the school sent out earlier this month in which it announced that “Satanic services” would be held in the yard every Thursday. The academy says the email was sent out erroneously, and that it was supposed to be announcing a study space for members of the Satanic Temple.
“Recently, a group of midshipmen with beliefs aligned with those practised by the Satanic Temple … requested a space where they could assemble to discuss and share their common beliefs,” Cmdr. Alana Garas, a spokesperson for the academy, told the AFP. “The request was for a ‘study group’ space, not for holding ‘Satanic services.'”
She added that midshipmen have the right to assemble and discuss their beliefs. However, she says they are not permitted to engage in partisan political activities, in accordance with Department of Defense policy.
Garas says officials did not sign off on the disputed email, which was sent out on Oct. 8 and later leaked online.
“It did not represent the U.S. Naval Academy’s Command Religious Program,” Garas said.
However, leaders with the Satanic Temple were quick to defend their members at the academy.
“The notion that members of The Satanic Temple within the Naval Academy could be denied the right to hold services because we are non-theistic and/or politically active has absolutely no credible basis in law or common sense,” temple founder Lucien Greaves said in a statement to Fox News. “The Satanic Temple is no more a political cause than the Catholic Church or Southern Baptists.”
The Satanic Temple has threatened to sue if the academy impedes the “religious liberty” of its members.
“All members of the military, and those within the Naval Academy, have the right to practise their religion, as well as to refuse participation in any and all religious services,” Greaves said.
“For anybody in the Naval Academy to suggest otherwise would be an insult to those who serve, and to those who care about our fundamental freedoms. We trust that the academy will handle our midshipmen’s request appropriately.”
The IRS officially recognized the Satanic Temple as a church earlier this year. The decision grants the group the same legal protections afforded to other religions.
Members of the Satanic Temple do not believe in a god and they do not worship Satan, according to their website. Instead, they reject superstitious beliefs and “embrace rational inquiry.” They also encourage people to act with “compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason.”
The group also has a handy web page explaining the distinction between the Satanic Temple and the Church of Satan, which is separate. A chart on the page describes the Satanic Temple as “socially and politically active.”
The Satanic Temple is based in Salem, Mass., where adherents often gather to discuss their beliefs (and to pose with a demonic-looking statue).
The group is also on the rise in Canada, where its members are exploring applying for charitable status through the Canada Revenue Agency.
“We need to see what that would look like and how exactly it would work, but that would be a very important next step for us,” Nicholas Marc, who leads the Satanic Temple in Canada, told Global News earlier this year. “We believe very strongly that we have all the elements of a religion.”
Although they don’t worship the devil, members of the Satanic Temple still use this common refrain: “Hail Satan!”
—With a file from Global News reporter Rachel Browne