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Religious freedom cuts many ways; see Satanic Temple’s challenge over rejected abortion billboards


REJECTED BILLBOARD AD: Too provocative billboard company said.

Federal Judge Timothy Brooks of Fayetteville last week refused to dismiss a lawsuit by the Satanic Temple against affiliates of Lamar Advertising for refusing to rent billboards in Arkansas for messages in support of abortion rights.

According to the Satanic Temple website, Lamar, after agreeing to lease the billboards for $16,000, found the proposed messages offensive and misleading. The temple sued for breach of contract but also — wait for it — invoked the Arkansas civil rights law that prohibits religious discrimination.

The temple has a “religious abortion ritual” that asserts a religious right to evade state restrictions on abortion. Far-fetched? No. Many religions explicitly provide for abortion, particularly in early stages of pregnancy and at least one lawsuit with Jewish plaintiffs is asserting this protection in federal court against state abortion bans.

If a cake maker or a website designer can assert a religious right not to bake a cake or sell a website design, can’t someone with a deeply held religious belief override state bans on abortion rooted, as in Arkansas, in religious belief? Sauce for the goose and all.

For now, Brooks is allowing the case to go forward.

In his 22-page order keeping the case alive, Brooks outlined the core of the temple’s argument:

According to the complaint, TST is a religious organization in the “nontheistic branch of Satanism.” ]Adherents “venerate[] (but do[] not worship) the biblical adversary as a promethean icon against tyranny.” TST practices the “Satanic Abortion Ritual,” described as the “ceremonious casting off of guilt, doubt, and mental discomfort that the member may be experiencing in connection with their election to abort the pregnancy.” ]According to TST, this ritual reflects the religion’s core tenets, particularly its commitment to bodily autonomy and the idea that scientific understanding should guide one’s beliefs.

The opinion describes the Lamar discussions to find a way around running the ads, which the temple argued was a “pretext for religious animus.”

The judge noted that Arkansas law  against religious discrimination “expressly encompasses “[t]he right to engage in property transactions . . . and other contractual transactions without discrimination.” And he noted that law, as he interprets the action in this case, could provide for punitive damages in a multiple of the $16,000 contract.

ANOTHER OF THE PROPOSED BILLBOARDS

The judge wrote:

The Court concludes that TST’s religious discrimination claim sounds in tort. According to the Complaint, Defendants discriminated against TST’s religious viewpoint in breach of a duty imposed by Arkansas statutory law. That Defendants may have also breached a contractual promise is incidental. Based on the statute’s plain text, liability may attach regardless of whether a contract—or even a promise—exists between parties. ACRA protects the right to participate in business transactions and would provide a cause of action even if, for example, Defendants decided not to contract based on discriminatory animus.

Lamar argued the case should be governed by Indiana law, where one of its affiliates had a role in considering whether to run the ads. But the judge concluded after a lengthy analysis that Arkansas law should govern.

Arkansas possesses significant contacts with the case and has a significant interest in its outcome.

Limits on speech about abortion, by the way, is certain to be a topic of discussion in the coming legislature as opponents of women’s medical rights attempt to stifle getting the word out about abortion availability beyond the state’s near total ban.



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