You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation
Oh Heavens

Ron DeSantis Just Invited the Wrath of the Satanic Temple

The Florida governor signed a law allowing religious chaplains to counsel public school students—and already he’s flouting the Constitution by saying some religions don’t qualify.

Ron DeSantis stares off into space at press conference
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis at a press conference on April 1

It’s no big deal, he said.

When Florida Governor Ron DeSantis last week signed a bill allowing religious chaplains into public schools, he insisted he was only returning public schools to their “original intent.” “It used to be, I mean, when education in the United States first started, every school was a religious school. That was just part of it. Public schools were religious schools,” he claimed. “I think what we’re doing is restoring the sense of purpose that our Founding Fathers wanted to see in education.”

In reality, the actual Founders—not the ones DeSantis and other MAGA politicians like to imagine—never could agree on how American public schools should teach religious ideas. One historical fact is clear, however: They would have been horrified at what DeSantis said after enacting the law.

This is not only a Florida problem. The new law is a copy of a 2023 law in Texas. Fourteen other states are considering something similar. The law allows religious ministers to volunteer in public schools to counsel students. The law does take some steps to ensure that students aren’t forced to, say, pray at school: School districts don’t have to participate, and if they do, they have to publish a list of chaplains and their religious denominations; and parents have to opt in to the program.

Yet the fundamental problem remains. The program smashes through the wall between church and school, and it’s patently unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has ruled in cases like 1948’s McCollum v. Champaign that public schools could not invite preachers in. DeSantis seems to be banking on the Supreme Court’s conservative majority to back this norm-breaking law—a safe bet, given the number of court opinions in recent years that have allowed religion into public schools, including a 2020 decision that concluded that leaving religious preachers out of public schools was a kind of “discrimination.”

To make the situation even worse, DeSantis is wrapping his self-proclaimed opposition to discrimination in layers of religious discrimination. When one religious group announced its willingness to participate in the school chaplain program, DeSantis glibly spurned centuries of American tradition. He happily did the exact thing that the real Founders worried about most. Without blinking, with either utter ignorance or shocking shamelessness, DeSantis trashed the Founders’ vision of religious liberty.     

Here’s what happened: As they have done with other cases involving religion and public schools, the Satanic Temple said it would gladly send chaplains into Florida’s public schools as soon as the new law took effect. These Satanists are not actual Satan-worshippers, even though they have legal status as a church, but rather a secularist group, hoping, in their words, “to provide a safe and inclusive alternative to the religious clubs that use threats of eternal damnation to convert school children to their belief system.”

DeSantis took the bait. He announced that no Satanists would ever participate in the chaplain program. Why not? Because Satanism, DeSantis intoned, “is not a religion.” And with that statement, DeSantis had the Founding Fathers rolling in their graves. DeSantis’s declaration was exactly the kind of thing they took pains to forbid.

When it came to religion in public schools, they didn’t agree on much else. Some prominent Founders, like Philadelphia’s Benjamin Rush, thought American public schools could only fulfill their mission if they inculcated children with religion. And not just any religion—Rush insisted in 1786 that schools should teach evangelical Protestant Christianity, “the religion of JESUS CHRIST.”

Other Founders disagreed. Thomas Jefferson imagined a flourishing system of free public schools for white children. His public schools, however, would explicitly replace “the Bible and Testament” with “the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European and American History.” Some founders went even further. Noah Webster, the textbook and dictionary author, purged religious language from his early schoolbooks. Instead of the old Puritan line that had taught earlier generations their alphabet—“A. In Adam’s Fall, We sinned all”—Webster put in a secular one: “A. Was an Apple-pie made by the cook.”

For DeSantis or anyone to say, then, that the Founding Fathers wanted religious public schools is simply false, a MAGA delusion. There were, however, some general principles upon which the Founders tended to agree. For one thing, they felt that public schools had to teach children how to be moral citizens, and that might include teaching religious ideas—but schools could never teach any one religion as the American religion. The word they used at the time was “non-sectarian,” and they meant that the goal of public schools was to make moral, thoughtful citizens, not better Presbyterians or Baptists or Catholics.

Samuel Knox might have captured this sentiment best. Knox is not as widely remembered today as Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Rush, but for the founding generation, his prize-winning 1795 essay was often considered the best description of the goals for truly American public schools. As Knox put it, public schools had to “separate the pursuits of science and literary knowledge from that narrow restriction and contracted influence of peculiar religious opinions.”

The reason for this was clear. The Founders worried that their new government might fall into the trap of the decrepit European monarchies. Indeed, the very first constitutional amendment started with a clear statement of their concern: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” As the First Amendment specified, Americans were free to practice any religion, but government leaders could never tell them which religion to practice. The Founders hoped to prevent elected politicians from using state-sponsored religion to agitate the populace into a European-style frenzy. As John Adams explained later in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, “People cannot whip and crop, and pillory and roast, as yet in the U.S.? If they could they would.”

DeSantis is doing his best to bring the Founders’ nightmares to life. He is, of course, distorting the historical nuance of the role of religion in America’s early schools; as historians such as Carl F. Kaestle and Benjamin Justice have shown, for all their talk about schools, the founders didn’t actually establish a public education system. It took a later generation to create modern public school systems, and when they did, they did not include chaplains. Even worse, by ruling out the Satanic Temple as “not a religion,” Ron DeSantis is seizing the right to define religion in schools—exactly what the Founders sought to prohibit. When there are some religions that count and others that don’t, we are perilously close to the pillory and the roast, to government-directed hunts against heresy.

Perhaps worst of all, DeSantis and other MAGA politicians are wrapping their anti-American policies in the mantle of a fraudulent and self-serving Americanism. By invoking the blessing of the Founding Fathers for this unconstitutional school law—one that Adams and Jefferson would have abhorred—DeSantis is not only insulting the intelligence of today’s Americans, he is also insulting those Founders themselves.