Satan club controversy at Point Defiance Elementary

By law, the Tacoma Public Schools is obligated to allow the Satanic Temple to offer an after-school program at Point Defiance Elementary School. Others aren't happy about it.
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By law, the Tacoma Public Schools is obligated to allow the Satanic Temple to offer an after-school program at Point Defiance Elementary School. Others aren't happy about it.
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Education

After-School Satan Club draws the devout and the curious to Tacoma school

December 14, 2016 07:42 PM

While a handful of Tacoma Catholics prayed on a nearby street corner, members of the Satanic Temple of Seattle arrived Wednesday afternoon at Point Defiance Elementary School in Tacoma to debut the state’s first After-School Satan Club for kids.

Temple leader Lilith Starr dubbed the premier meeting — an after-school open house for parents and students — a success.

“I was worried people might be scared away,” she said, noting the protests and community discussions that have taken place in Tacoma since the club was announced in August.

She said Wednesday’s event drew 11 adults and nine kids. Parents who attended the meeting reported similar numbers. Those were larger numbers than showed up at a recent After-School Satan Club event in Portland, Starr said.

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The group included two students who identified themselves as Christians, she said.

Starr said one parent signed a permission slip for a student to join the club, which is to meet monthly at Point Defiance throughout the school year.

The temple, part of a national group based in Salem, Massachusetts, is launching Satan Clubs around the country as an alternative at public schools that host Christian after-school programs.

Point Defiance has an after-school Good News Club, a national Christian program developed by the Missouri-based Child Evangelism Fellowship. It meets Tuesdays at the school, one of a handful of Good News Clubs within Tacoma Public Schools.

They are trying to take away the innocence of our children

Sue Jones, Tacoma

Tacoma Public Schools’ decision to allow the Satan Club has sparked protests from parents. Last month, a group of Point Defiance parents asked the Tacoma School Board to prohibit it.

District officials cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that compels public schools that open their facilities for after-school rental to make the facilities available to all kinds of groups.

Superintendent Carla Santorno told parents in November that to keep the Satan Club out of the school, the district would have to deny other groups — everything from sports to scouts — use of the buildings after school.

Some parents at Wednesday’s open house supported the club.

Topher Welsh, who has two children at Point Defiance, said he’s not a Satanist, but supports the club’s goals.

He said the temple members weren’t scary: “They are just people who don’t believe in religion. They are a group that doesn’t want to see religion in schools.” He said he feels the same way.

Another parent, Nathan Finch, brought his child to the meeting. His kids attend Geiger Montessori School, also part of Tacoma Public Schools. But he said they might join the Point Defiance Satan Club.

Parents said temple members Wednesday talked about the club, answered parents’ questions and explained their interpretation of Satanism. Temple members say they don’t believe in a literal Satan, but rather see the figure as a symbol of knowledge who stands against arbitrary authority.

They are just people who don’t believe in religion. They are a group that doesn’t want to see religion in schools

Topher Welsh, parent

But others who came out to the school Wednesday said the club presents a real danger to Tacoma children.

As the open house took place, a handful of people from two Tacoma Catholic churches — Holy Rosary and Visitation — stood across the street, praying the rosary, a Catholic devotional tool made up of a string of beads.

“We want to pray for the protection of our kids in our community,” said the Rev. Nick Wichert, pastor of both parishes. He said parishioners also were praying for the souls of the temple members.

Earlier in the day, more than 30 people gathered outside the school at noon to pray the rosary. John Ritchie, spokesman for the national America Needs Fatima campaign that organized the gathering, said the Satanic movement “attacks God, undermines moral values and foments disrespect for legitimate authority.”

“Satan was the first rebel,” he said.

Satan Club organizers say the clubs focus on rational thought and science, not devil worship. The clubs “aren’t about proselytizing to children, but rather giving them the critical-thinking skills they need to make their own decisions about the world,” according to Starr.

Ritchie’s group, a Catholic organization, included people from the Tacoma area and from other parts of the country. Many held rosary beads as one man with a megaphone led the group in prayers, and someone played hymns on a bagpipe.

“This is the devil’s work,” said Sue Jones of Tacoma. “They are trying to take away the innocence of our children.”

School district spokesman Dan Voelpel said that only children whose parents sign them up for the Satan Club can attend.

At least one parent might have changed his mind about the club.

When Victor Virgili spoke to The News Tribune about it in October, he said he probably wouldn’t enroll his kids. But after doing some research on the temple, he said he found them to be less scary than he first thought.

“They don’t seem like they are preaching the dark arts,” he said.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo