Jason Benell lives in Des Moines with his wife and two children. He is a combat veteran, former city council candidate, and president of Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers.
Last week, Republican State Senator Sandy Salmon introduced Senate File 2210, “An act related to the Satanic displays or Satanic worship on property of the state and its political subdivisions.”
The bill is designed from top to bottom to ban satanism from being practiced, observed, or even acknowledged in public, including in Iowa schools, libraries, and public rights-of-way. A more clear and precise violation of the Iowa Constitution’s Article 1, Section 3 regarding religion couldn’t have been drafted better for future legal textbooks.
That article states in part, “The general assembly shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof […].”
In contrast, Senate File 2210 states, “Displays, symbols, or the practice of Satanic worship shall not be allowed on public property, in public schools, on property owned by public schools, or on any property owned by the state or its political subdivisions.” Violating that provision, or a subsection that bans “Any act of Satanic practice or worship that involves the ending of a life or the shedding of blood,” would be deemed “a criminal offense subject to prosecution under the laws of the state.”
This bill is clearly unconstitutional, violating Article 1, Sections 6 and 7 (on equal protection as well as free speech). It could not withstand legal scrutiny.
Still, what is more troubling is that such an unconstitutional bill was published and assigned to a subcommittee. (At this writing, it has not had a subcommittee hearing.)
The separation of church and state with an explicitly secular government is the cornerstone of our democracy. When the rights of individuals to practice whatever faith, or no faith at all, are eroded and compromised, we cease to be a democracy with a representative government. Instead, we become a theocracy that gets to pick and choose which faiths—or individuals who may or not practice a faith—are “subject to prosecution under the laws of the state.”
The violations don’t stop there. The legislators who wish to pick and choose which faiths are criminalized are the same ones who would use their faith to criminalize other populations, particularly the LGBTQ+ and immigrant populations.
When the government can play favorites with religion and intentionally violate the state constitution, then the government ceases to represent everyone. Our democracy is more pure, just, and representative when a wall stands between religious views and state action. The Satanists have different views on faith than many others do, but that doesn’t mean the state should prosecute satanic displays or practices.
The legislature would better serve Iowans by rejecting unconstitutional bills and publicly endorsing the separation of church and state. While this bill likely is headed nowhere for the reasons stated above, the fact that Salmon filed and advocated for it reveals a severe misunderstanding of religious liberty and equality, a dire threat to the foundations of a representative government, or both.
I encourage all Iowans to take threats to our civil liberties seriously and stand against bills like Senate File 2210. We must protect the rights of Iowans to practice whichever faith they may have, even if that is to practice none at all.
Top photo of State Senator Sandy Salmon was originally published in her newsletter for the week ending February 3.