We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Charter-school students get a lesson on the establishment clause when Satan comes to class.
It’s the last day of school at Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy on Florida Avenue NW, and 16-year-old Zema Brown is entertaining her classmates over lunch with an impression of a recent class speaker, one Damon Morningstar. She strides into the room with a swagger, taking off imaginary sunglasses and tossing them down on a desk. She puffs herself up and fixes a table of her 10th-grade companions with a nasty glare. They dissolve into giggles.
Brown instantly disliked Morningstar when he came to speak to her class. A member of the Church of Satan, Morningstar was invited to present his religion to the school’s 50 10th-graders in early June as part of a three-week academic unit on religion designed to finish up the school year. Brown says she had been open-minded and interested in hearing the special guest lecturer’s presentation, the last in a series of field trips and speeches designed to introduce the teens to 15 different major and minor religions. But her attitude changed once he gave her “the look.”
“I don’t mind his religion,” says Brown. “I just don’t like his attitude.”
The feeling is mutual. “Most of those dull-witted little urchins are destined to lead—from my Satanic perspective—insignificant, miserable, impoverished lives,” grumbles Morningstar, who believes the students are “human dross” likely to engage only in “menial labor, street hustles, and the use of a Glock” when they grow up.
A “grotto master” and local spokesperson for the Church of Satan, Morningstar contends that the school discriminated against him and his religion when teachers required parents to sign a letter of permission for students to attend his lecture. No signatures were required for the other religions studied.
Now, what began as an experiment in progressive learning—the academic study of a wide range of religions—has turned into a small battle over the meaning of the First Amendment’s establishment clause. And the Church of Satan is raising hell.
“It clearly was a constitutional transgression,” says Morningstar. “They’re teaching these students religious tolerance and practicing religious intolerance by singling out a single religion for a religious stigma. That is the definition of the establishment of religion.”
Irasema Salcido founded the Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy in 1998. A former assistant principal at Bell Multicultural High School with a master’s in education from Harvard, Salcido has been hailed as one of the most committed new principals in D.C. Robert Cane, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, describes her as “a wonderful, charismatic principal” who runs a school with a “superior reputation.”
And Salcido’s willing to take tough stands: Last year, when three-quarters of the ninth-grade class failed to meet the charter school’s stringent academic requirements, she kept them back. (As a consequence, this year her school had 50 10th-graders and 80 ninth-graders.) Earlier this year, she won the Principal of the Year award from the D.C. Public Charter School Resource Center.
But if Salcido’s not afraid to anger parents by holding their kids back, she also knows how to avoid the kinds of unnecessary skirmishes that would disrupt those kids’ education. And when Morningstar was slated to visit, she says, she was just trying to prevent upset parents from disrupting his lecture by asking them to sign consent forms in advance. She says she wanted to offer parents the choice of keeping their children from a lecture that might offend their religious sensibilities.
“I think that something so extreme like [Satanism], the parents would have come and not even allowed him to present,” says Salcido. “You cannot predict that something like that would happen, [that] people would be upset and try to demonstrate—but why wouldn’t you try to prevent that if you could?”
The trouble started on Thursday, June 1. That’s when Delano Lopez, one of four 10th-grade teachers, received confirmation from Morningstar—whom he’d contacted via the Church of Satan’s D.C. Web site—that Morningstar would speak on Monday, June 5. In preparation for his presentation, Morningstar requested that the students be given a packet of information about the Satanic religion.
Lopez and his fellow teachers gave students the packets that Friday to study over the weekend. The photocopied sheets contained Peter H. Gilmore’s essay “Satanism: The Feared Religion,” “The Nine Satanic Statements” from Church of Satan founder Anton Szandor LaVey’s book The Satanic Bible, and LaVey’s “The Eleven Satanic Rules of the Earth.” Each packet also included a full description of the “Nine Satanic Sins”: stupidity, pretentiousness, solipsism, self-deceit, herd conformity, lack of perspective, forgetfulness of past orthodoxies, counterproductive pride, and lack of aesthetics.
Late Friday afternoon, Lopez says, 10th-grade English teacher and religion course team leader Beth Fighera started getting cold feet. The kids had all gone home for the day. What would the parents of this overwhelmingly Christian group of students say when they saw excerpts from The Satanic Bible as reading material?
Fearing a disaster, Fighera conferred with Director of Education Randy Littlefield. Together, they decided to postpone the lecture until they could get parental permission for students to attend. It was a tactic Littlefield had often used when presenting controversial materials during his 18 years of teaching at private schools. “Overcommunication is always a lot better than undercommunication,” he says.
Indeed, the school had already sent home a general letter to parents at the beginning of the religion course, letting them know that their children would be going to a variety of different places of worship. Before
Morningstar came to speak, they’d visited the Islamic Center, the National Cathedral, the D.C. Jewish Community Center, and the Buddhist Vihara Society and Temple, among others. And, says Littlefield, the school regularly sends home opt-in letters when broaching difficult subjects such as reproductive education or screening a graphic Japanese anime film of the bombing of Hiroshima during history class.
On Monday, the teachers sent a letter home to parents which read, in part:
Tuesday, we have scheduled a representative from the DC Church of Satan to speak to our group. We know that this may be a controversial subject for many of our students and their families; but as with all of our visits and speakers, this is designed to inform—not influence—our students. We hope that this speaker will complement the student’s study of groups that fall outside of the religious mainstream. This group was also invited to speak because they can dispel many commonly held stereotypes about their own and similar organizations.
Most parents signed off. Only 10 of 50 refused to let their kids hear the lecture. “He was one of the most interesting [speakers],” says Lopez, who is Catholic and a lector at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart. “He was witty, intelligent, humorous, and very informative. And, perhaps most importantly, thought-provoking.”
You don’t have to invite a Satanist to school to bring the devil into your classroom. Indeed, he’s right in the middle of many lit-class highlights. “The biggest ruse of the devil is making us believe that he doesn’t exist,” wrote Charles Baudelaire. Goethe’s Faust presents the devil as jovial companion, the witty friend who urges you on to destruction. And Milton, in Paradise Lost, single-handedly created the Romantic vision of the devil as sympathetic fallen angel, cast out of heaven for his rebellious spirit.
In 1966, LaVey founded the Church of Satan in San Francisco. That traces of William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” can be found in LaVey’s Nine Satanic Statements is no surprise: The Church of Satan aligns itself with Blake’s interpretation of the devil as agent of liberty.
“Satanic tradition embraces the Romantic aspects of the dark, rebellious angel,” says Morningstar. “We love the concept of Satan as the learned, erudite libertine who rejects the haughty moralistic tyrant and goes to do his own thing. The Romantic vision of Satan goes back to Milton and can be traced to modern Satanism through the Hellfire Clubs of 18th-century Europe and some certain dark magical traditions of southern France.”
The one thing members of the Church of Satan don’t believe in is the devil. “Most Satanists don’t believe in the literal existence of a Satan being, and all Satanists reject the worship of a quote-close-quote Satan,” says Morningstar. Instead, he says, they celebrate magic, dogma, and mystery through rituals designed to vent individual emotions—rather like Wiccans or neo-pagans, but without the need for a deity. Instead, they consider themselves gods. And so contemporary Satanism, as represented by the Church of Satan, has been called an anti-religion or a nontheist religion.
These beliefs are part of what Morningstar went to Cesar Chavez to explain. But the Church of Satan has more disturbing aspects as well. Heavily publicized in the late ’60s, the Church began avoiding the limelight in the ’70s, after LaVey decided media attention was leading too many neo-Nazis and oddballs to the group. Membership is tightly controlled by a central office in California, which requires prospective members to fill out a lengthy and elaborate application form. Elitism is one of the church’s central tenets, and confounding expectations is practically a commandment. Whereas exclusivity is a part of many religions, few religions are, in their American manifestations, as open as the Church of Satan about seeing most of humanity as scum.
That alone is enough reason to require a parental letter, say some educational experts. “The people from the Church of Satan ought to be pleased and amazed that they were even included at all,” says Charles Haynes, a senior fellow at the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center, a think tank that focuses on free-speech and religion issues. “Most schools that have guest speakers on world religions rarely go so far as to include some of the smaller groups that they have here.”
“It’s not a matter of treating someone unfairly. I think it’s a matter of anticipating when a particular event may be controversial—and I think they are on pretty strong grounds to think that there may be parents upset by this speaker,” says Haynes.
Some First Amendment devotees, though, are disturbed by the Satanist’s treatment at the hands of Cesar Chavez officials. “I think if they are going to present a course like that, everyone needs to be treated equally and the school can’t particularly choose which religion to permit or not permit in that way,” says Judith Schaeffer, the deputy legal director of the People for the American Way Foundation, a progressive group that studies the separation of church and state.
“If they were in a Baptist community and they sent home slips when a Jewish rabbi spoke and not a Catholic preacher, you can see the problem,” says Schaeffer. “The school district needs to treat religions neutrally if it’s going to have a policy about educating on religions.”
But if any students have been turned against Satanism, the school’s administrative handling of Morningstar’s visit has less to do with it than Morningstar himself. “He kept staring at me,” says 17-year-old Henry Fernandez. “I just looked the other way, because I was getting scared.” Fernandez’s mother is Pentecostal, he says, and he had to convince her to let him attend the lecture. Today, he says he’s glad he heard it—but adds that it still disturbs him.
And even though Morningstar remains livid about how the school labeled him, the students who met him say they’re reacting to something that any high school kid knows you don’t have to be a Satanist to practice: snobbery. “I didn’t like the way he labeled us,” Brown concludes. CP