LOCATED IN CENTRAL FLORIDA, Orange County encompasses the city of Orlando, and so, in addition to about 1.3 million people, it is also home to both Mickey Mouse and Universal Studios’ E.T. In early 2015, however, it almost played host to . . . SATAN! The story started in 2011, when a Christian organization named the World Changers of Florida asked the school board if it could distribute Bibles in schools around the county. The board permitted World Changers—whose mission, according to the group’s Facebook page, is to “restore personal and national integrity, morals, ethical standards, and direction to the United States as envisioned by our founding fathers in personal correspondence, the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Holy Bible”—to place Bibles on a centrally located table for children to take as they pleased during a single day in January 2012. When the group organized a similar passive distribution event the following January, David Williamson and his compatriots at the Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC) (you may remember them from the chapter on legislative prayer) asked to host a similar event. According to Williamson, “If they’re going to have a religious discussion on campus, we need to be a part of it.” The board allowed CFFC to make materials such as Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason available in about a dozen schools in April of that year, although it also refused to allow CFFC to distribute several other freethinking tracts, such as Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation and a book titled Jesus Is Dead.
Objecting to what it viewed as censorship of its materials, CFFC sued the school board, but the federal district judge in charge of the case dismissed the suit after the board said that the group could go ahead and distribute any materials it wanted. Due to what seems to be confusion about what it could or could not do, CFFC did not hold another distribution event, but luckily for the citizens of Orange County, the Satanic Temple was there to take CFFC’s place. Doug Mesner asked the school board if TST could distribute a little book it had put together, The Satanic Children’s BIG BOOK of Activities, explaining in a separate statement:
We 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.
By this point in the book, you can probably predict what happened next. The community went bonkers, and the board followed suit. The chairman of the board, a guy named Bill Sublette, declared: “This really has, frankly, gotten out of hand. I think we’ve seen a group or groups take advantage of the open forum we’ve had.” Christine Moore, a fellow board member, announced, “Everyone’s upset about the Satanists and the atheists coming.” The board quickly halted the religious materials distribution policy, pending review, and then in early 2015 voted 7–1 to prohibit the distribution of any religious materials whatsoever in the public schools. Christians were sad. “This is precisely what the Freedom from Religion people want,” said John Stemberger, the head of the Florida Family Policy Council. “They want to get rid of religion, and that’s their strategy. And everybody’s played into the strategy. It’s unfortunate.” World Changers vice president Greg Harper compared the ban to the board’s earlier decision to ban football chaplains at schools. “They seem to be moving against the interests of a large part of the community,” he explained. “The Bible will open somebody’s heart, somebody’s mind, and cause them to pursue answers.” Doug Mesner, on the other hand, thought the change in policy “strongly implie[d] they never intended to have a plurality of voices.”
So what exactly is in this scary book of Satanist activities that everyone in Orange County found so alarming? Blood drinking? Child gobbling? Hardly. The book, which sports a full-color cover depicting a smiling girl wearing a pentagram necklace holding hands with a happy boy wearing a shirt with a goat’s head on it, is all of eight pages long and doesn’t contain a single picture of a sacrificed cat. On the first page, readers are challenged to find six differences between two nearly identical pictures of a girl named Annabel, who is “spreading knowledge and helping to dispel fear and ignorance by demonstrating her Satanic ritual for her class,” and her grumpy teacher. The ritual involves a lit candle and a jumping frog, but it’s not clear if the teacher is angry about the fire risks posed by the candle or (spoiler alert) the fact that her mug says “I love Homework” in one picture but “#1 Teacher” in the other. Annabel reappears on page three, calling upon readers to color her “study filled with Satanic literature and philosophy” and on page five, a word search in which she and her little friend Damian are using “their patience and open-mindedness to decipher” what Whopper, a “big and sometimes scary” guy who “has trouble saying what’s on his mind,” is trying to say. The hidden words include such ghastly Satanic epithets as “friends,” “love,” and “acceptance.”
Damian, for his part, also appears on page four, where he uses a connect-the-dots picture to show his classmates (and the grumpy teacher) how to “make an inverted pentagram,” and then again on page six, a maze, in which he and his pet dog, Cerberus, “are trying to navigate [a] dark, dank labyrinth to find the fabled Necronomicon.” Completing the book are pages on which children can draw a picture of what Cerberus might be dreaming about, decode the secret message that Annabel sent Damian in a note during class (the teacher looks really pissed off about this particular infraction; the ruler she brandishes in her hand is probably symbolic of the corporal punishment that TST has vocally opposed), and unjumble mixed-up letters to spell more devilish terms like “compassion,” “respect,” and “empathy.” This latter puzzle is accompanied by a picture of three mean bullies threatening a waving Damian and his bespectacled friend and says, by way of direction: “These bullies are mad and afraid of things they don’t understand. Help Damian use inclusive language to defuse the situation.”
I don’t know about you, but I sure sleep a lot better knowing that the Orange County school board kept this dissolute tract away from impressionable schoolchildren!