Reversing a decision to allow a group sponsored by a religious organization to meet on school property could land the Saucon Valley School District in legal hot water, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warned superintendent Jaime Vlasaty in a letter Friday.
Late last month, Vlasaty rescinded the permission the controversial After School Satan Club (ASSC) had received to meet at Saucon Valley Middle School, after news about the club incited an alleged threat against the district that closed schools and offices for a day-and-a-half.
Vlasaty said in a statement about her decision to rescind the club’s permission that it had violated district requirements outlined in school board Policy 707, which concerns the use of school facilities by community and other outside groups.
The After School Satan Club is sponsored by the Satanic Temple (TST) and the Reason Alliance and is not affiliated with the district; a point that was addressed by Vlasaty at the Feb. 28 Saucon Valley School Board meeting.
Specifically, she said, the club’s approval was rescinded under the policy’s “Advertisement Limitation,” which she said “clearly states that when advertising or promoting activities…community groups shall clearly communicate that the activities are not being sponsored by the school district.”
Vlasaty said she rescinded permission “after the district received evidence that advertisements, social media posts and the like violated this policy.”
Representatives for the ACLU, however, have taken exception to the basis for Vlasaty’s decision, writing in their letter to her that “it was only after the District received complaints and threats of violence in response to ASSC’s application that you rescinded approval,” which they likened to approving a “heckler’s veto” by the club’s opponents.
A heckler’s veto is an action by a party opposed to a message that results in the cancellation of the message. The concept factors in some U.S. case law related to the First Amendment, including U.S. Supreme Court and other recent case law cited by the ACLU in its letter.
“The District has intentionally opened up its facilities for general community use and, in so doing, may not limit access to this forum based on the content of our clients’ speech, their religious identity, or their viewpoint–even if some may find their beliefs ‘controversial or divisive,” wrote ACLU of Pennsylvania Deputy Legal Director Sara J. Rose, ACLU of Pennsylvania Staff Attorney Richard Ting and ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief Senior Staff Attorney Healther L. Weaver on March 3.
“Respectfully, the reason cited for your decision to rescind approval for our clients’ use of District facilities is plainly pretextual and merely compounds the District’s violations of our clients’ constitutional rights,” they said. “As you admitted in your February 24, 2023, letter, the permission slip distributed by our clients explicitly states that ASSC ‘is not an activity of the school or the School District.’ And our clients’ introductory letter to parents states the same in bolded font. Moreover, TST has repeatedly made clear, in writing and otherwise, that the ASSC is sponsored by TST.”
The letter went on to reference permission the District has granted a Christian-based group sponsored by an outside organization to meet on school property.
“We understand that the Good News Club has, in the past and recently, distributed flyers, permissions slips and other promotional materials online and in print without any disclaimer that its meetings are not sponsored by the District,” the letter said. “The District has even sent these flyers, which fail to make it clear that the Good News Club is not an activity of the District, home in student’s backpacks,” it further claimed. “Imposing more stringent requirements on our clients than are enforced against the Good News Club or other groups that use school facilities constitutes an additional violation of our clients’ First Amendment rights.”
The first meeting of the After School Satan Club was scheduled to take place this Wednesday, March 8 at Saucon Valley Middle School, and because of that, the ACLU asked the district to respond to its letter by Tuesday, March 7 at noon.
“Our clients reserve all rights to pursue litigation if this discrimination continues,” it concluded. “Please consider yourselves on notice of potential litigation and preserve all documents related to our clients’ application, your decisions to approve it and then rescind that approval, other applications for the use of school facilities, and any other materials that may be relevant to a potential lawsuit.”
Vlasaty, in her school board meeting comments, said she and her family been harassed by both advocates for and opponents of the club ever since news of it first went viral.
She said she has received “hundreds” of emails, voicemails and phone calls from “community members frustrated by my decision to approve the club, angry that I placed the students in danger and now outraged that I rescinded the approval of the club.”
More than simply attacking her decision, Vlasaty told the board that community members have attacked her personally, going so far as to accuse her of being a Satan worshipper and telling her she should “not be around children,” that she “should be ashamed to call (herself) a mother” and that she “and (her) two small children…should burn in hell.”
“I know what I signed on for,” Vlasaty said. “My kids and my family, however, did not.”
In the ACLU’s letter, it called the threats to Vlasaty and her family “reprehensible” and “unacceptable,” but said punishing the After School Satan Club and its sponsors, “who are also the victims of these threats, by denying them access to District facilities is unconscionable and unconstitutional.”
The next Saucon Valley School Board meeting will be held Tuesday, March 14 at 7 p.m. Meetings are held in-person in the high school Audion room and livestreamed on YouTube, where recordings are uploaded to the school district’s channel. Meeting agendas may be viewed in advance on the district’s website.