PENSACOLA, Fla. — Last week, religious rights activist David Suhor delivered an invocation before the Pensacola city council. It wasn’t the first time that he had successfully lobbied for the right to give an opening prayer before a local governmental body. However, doing so as a member of The Satanic Temple resulted in much more attention than when Suhor offered a specifically Pagan prayer before the Escambia County commission in 2014. While only one commissioner left the room during the 2014 prayer, his recent appearance before the city council was greeted by dozens of Christians seeking to drown him out.
When Suhor rose to deliver the invocation, dressed in a black robe with a hood partially obscuring his face, many of the attendees rose along with him. It was not their intention, however, to join their voices in with his Satanic prayer. They stood to recite the Lord’s Prayer, while some of their number brandished crosses and apparently sought to cast out demons. After the protesters began their third recitation of the Christian prayer, council president Charles Bare was forced to order the room cleared.The decision was faced with objections by people who knew that Suhor himself had recited his own prayer during the delivery of the invocation at the previous meeting, which had been called to specifically discuss whether prayers should be replaced with moments of silence. The first twelve minutes of the official video show the entire series of events as they unfolded, including how the fervor spilled over into the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.
“My approach in the beginning was to get invocations dropped” from the meetings, Suhor told The Wild Hunt, but those efforts led to no changes. Now, he said, “I am demanding radical inclusion.”
That shift was in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in Town of Greece v Galloway, which rather than eliminating prayers from public meetings, required that members of all religions be given the opportunity. In addition to the prayer he offered before the county commissioners meeting, he has also tried to get on the agenda of the Escambia County School Board and the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority, but was unsuccessful.
According to Suhor, “We meet all the requirements of all the boards, which are none.” He also noted that, because they are not legislative bodies, neither the school nor utility board is allowed to include prayer under the Galloway decision.
Suhor said that he still identifies as Pagan despite having joined The Satanic Temple (TST), and doesn’t find anything contradictory about that fact. He also continues to use the term “agnostic” to describe himself, but does not consider himself an atheist.
He said, “I can identify with ten different paths, and reject all religions that say you can have only one. I explore many faiths.”
He still enjoys Pagan rituals, he explained, because of the “strong spiritual component.” However, he finds nothing in the seven tenets of The Satanic Temple that makes him uncomfortable. On a pragmatic level, joining TST opened his and mind to finding allies. He said, it “helped us up our game. […] No one seemed to care when I did Pagan, pantheist, or agnostic invocations, but when name Satan and they care about the issue.”
Suhor has shown consistency about that position over time; during his 2014 interview with The Wild Hunt, he was already considering invoking Satan or the Flying Spaghetti Monster to get the issue taken seriously.
None of the four elected boards has a written policy to ensure non-discrimination, he said. This leaves members to practice what he calls an “appeasement policy,” only allowing prayers from individuals who won’t upset the Christian majority in the area. “They give the veneer of inclusion,” he said, but only just barely.
He recalled one school board meeting that he attended on the issue during which the invocation was provided by a local rabbi. The board member who invited him specifically said it was for the cause of diversity. “That poor rabbi thought he was being honored,” Suhor observed, but was actually being used to advance “tokenism.”This is not the only way in which Suhor has expressed dissatisfaction with what he sees as unapologetic Christian privilege in his part of Florida. He is also one of several local residents suing to get the Bayview cross removed from public property.
Named for the public park in which it stands, the 20-foot-high cross is a gathering place every Easter Sunday. After determining that no one had ever obtained a permit for the gathering, Suhor himself applied for and received one for this year, but the day was rained out. Both the lawsuit — which is being advanced by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association — and the permit move are about opposing the tacit governmental endorsement of one religion.
In truth, Suhor seems satisfied that his invocation was delayed and constrained and otherwise opposed. City council members opted to leave his scheduled invocation on the schedule, choosing to “grin and bear” the Satanic blessing and hoping the issue would then go away. However, a press release made sure that local reporters were following the debate leading up to the July 14 meeting very closely.
It is not clear if Suhor’s latest invocation received more scrutiny because it carried the name Satan, as he believes, or because The Satanic Temple is more media-savvy than most Pagans. Suhor is a co-founder of the West Florida chapter of TST, and while he’s careful not to say that he speaks for the organization, he acknowledges that he has assumed the de facto role of public face for the group. Membership is growing, he added.
While city council members may not have been prepared for the furor resulting from the request to perform the invocation, Suhor did prepare for the possibility. He recorded a video of the prayer he sang, complete with hand motions, in case it was difficult to follow along at the meeting. That video is below.