The Oklahoma Black Mass: Controversy, Confusion and Religious Freedom

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Amid a flurry of controversy and confusion, the Oklahoma Civic Center Music Hall in Oklahoma City will be become the setting for a public Black Mass this Sunday, Sept. 21. The event, which is being billed as “enlightening and educational,” is reportedly now sold out. The purpose of the public staging, as written in the Civic Center’s blurb, is to bring a feared ritual “into the light.”

Just as problems arose when a Harvard University Extension club attempted to sponsor a Black Mass, the Oklahoma event has inspired local protests that began immediately after the Civic Center listed the Black Mass on its schedule. However, in this story, the ensuing controversy took a few unexpected twists and turns that go well-beyond typical outrage from the city’s Catholic community.

Oklahoma City Skyline [Photo Credit: Urbanative, CC - Wikimedia]

Oklahoma City Skyline [Photo Credit: Urbanative, CC – Wikimedia]

Oklahoma’s Archbishop Paul Coakley was the first to react publicly. On July 1, he issued a news release that read, “We are astonished and grieved by this proposed sacrilegious event.” He called on the Civic Center to cancel the event and on Oklahoma Catholics to pray.

A month later, after getting no response from the Civic Center, the Archbishop published an open letter asking all Christians to pray for protection, saying, “I am certainly concerned about the misuse of a publicly supported facility for an event which has no other purpose than mocking the Catholic faith.”

Despite public pressure, the Civic Center maintained a position of neutrality. Recently, general manager Jim Brown explained to a Christian news network, Aleteia:

Since we’re a City of Oklahoma facility we’re required to abide by all First Amendment rights to the Constitution, which don’t allow us to turn away any productions … As a public facility, we’re required to rent to organizations and individuals as long as they abide by our policies and procedures.

None of this public pressure is new to the Civic Center.  In 2010, a Satanic church called Four King Princes, originally The Church of IV Majesties, held a exorcism in the same space. At that time, the Center made clear that it upholds the city’s policy of non-discrimination. And that policy still stands today.

Governor Mary Fallin

Governor Mary Fallin [Courtesy of the State of Oklahoma]

While the Civic Center itself has remained neutral, Oklahoma’s state officials have not. On Aug. 13 Governor Mary Fallin released a statement in which she said, “It is shocking and disgusting that a group of New York City ‘satanists’ would travel all the way to Oklahoma to peddle their filth here. I pray they realize how hurtful their actions are and cancel this event.”

Unfortunately, in making that public statement, Fallin not only demonstrated religious bias but also managed to muddle an already volatile situation. She assumed that The Satanic Temple was responsible for the upcoming Black Mass.

This may seem like an easy mistake. The Satanic Temple is a very active, vocal and public organization that works aggressively in defense of religious freedom. The organization is behind the quest to place a Baphomet statue in the Oklahoma courthouse and assisted the Harvard Club with its Black Mass in May. Just this week, The Satanic Temple announced that it would begin distributing religious materials to students in Florida’s Orange County Public Schools. The news release reads:

In response to a recent School Board decision in Orange County, Florida that allows for the dissemination of religious materials in public schools, The Satanic Temple has announced they will follow suit by providing Satanic materials to students during the new school year. Among the materials to be distributed are pamphlets related to the Temple’s tenets, philosophy and practice of Satanism, as well as information about the legal right to practice Satanism in school.

However, The Satanic Temple is not behind the upcoming Oklahoma Black Mass. Representative, Lucien Greaves told The Wild Hunt that it has “nothing to do with the event” and said:

There was some confusion about this when Gov. Fallin specifically, erroneously, denounced The Satanic Temple in relation to this Black Mass prompting us to disseminate a press release making clear that we are not involved, and asking an apology from the governor’s office. The governor never replied.

Sunday’s Black Mass was organized by a local Oklahoma Satanic church called Dakhma of Angra Mainyu. When asked about the church’s intentions, co-Founder Adam Daniels told ABC News that “One of the dictates of the church is not only to educate the members but to educate the public … and to debunk the Hollywood-projected image of our beliefs.”

Adam Daniels [Photo Credit: A. Daniels, Flickr, CC lic]

Adam Daniels [Photo Credit: A. Daniels, Flickr, CC lic]

Despite this and other attempts at explanation, Daniels was unable to mollify the community. Confusion and frustrations only mounted. Then, Aug 20, the saga took a twist when Archbishop Coakley filed a lawsuit against Dakhma of Angra Mainyu. He did this after learning that Daniels planned to use a consecrated host in ritual. Archbishop Coakley said:

Catholics believe that Jesus Christ is really present in the form of bread and wine in the Holy Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith. The local organizers of this satanic inversion intend to use a stolen consecrated Host obtained illicitly from a Catholic Church to desecrate it as a sacrifice to Satan. Through this lawsuit, I hope to avoid the desecration of the Host.

According to reports, Daniels claims that he didn’t steal the wafers and that they were mailed to him by a Turkish priest. He then accused the Church of attempting to defame his character and planned a countersuit. However, after days of negotiations, Daniels agreed to return the host to the Church and, in return, the Archbishop dropped the lawsuit.

While that portion of the conflict ended, other protests continued. The conservative Christian TFP Student Action organization launched an online petition asking both the Civic Center and Governor “to stop the sacrilege.” The petition now has over 85,000 signatures.

To complicate matters, this summer’s national publicity has also dredged up problems from Daniels’ past, providing more sensational fodder for protesters for local media. Daniels is on Oklahoma’s sex offender registry. Although he has publicly addressed the offense in 2010, he has reportedly developed a reputation that has led to several group conflicts and mistrust within his own religious community.

It was this reputation and associated conflicts that triggered, in part, the The Satanic Temple’s quick response to Governor Fallin’s error. Greaves explains that there are certainly many different interpretations of Satanism. He is unfamiliar with Daniels’ particular beliefs so he could not “condone nor condemn” his work.  However, he said:

We do know … that Mr Daniels has developed a very poor reputation in his community, one that further encouraged us to make clear his lack of affiliation with us. We have built a great deal of goodwill among Oklahomans who understand the importance of our attempts to preserve an environment of religious liberty/pluralism in their home state. We certainly don’t want activities beyond our control to compromise that in any way.

Despite the flurry of concerns, both personal and religious, the Black Mass will be staged as planned. After the lawsuit was finally dropped, the only remaining issue was to ensure that the ritual itself would uphold all state laws. As noted on the site, Daniels assures the public:

The Black Mass being performed at the [Oklahoma] Civic Center has been toned downed as to allow it  to be performed in a public government building. The authenticity and purpose of the Black Mass will remain in tact [sic] while allowing for slight changes so that a public viewing can occur without breaking Oklahoma’s laws based on nudity, public urination and other sex acts.

Unfortunately, we were unable to reach Daniels for further comment. However, if “preserving religious equality” or educating the public are indeed Daniels’ goal, the extraneous complications, stories of theft, and a dubious past may have muddied his mission. It can be very difficult to spot religious freedom activism through lawsuits and accusations of impropriety. Regardless of any these issues, the event will go on and the city-run Civic Center will uphold Daniels’ constitutional right to free expression of his religion. In that way, Dakhma of Angra Mainyu has ultimately managed to test the boundaries and soundness of religious tolerance and freedom in Oklahoma City.