Sympathy for the Devil

Daniel Romano was just an ordinary Satanist in Queens. One jagged scar later, he's a national test case for hate crime laws.

Even if Romano was targeted, a beefy 35-year-old named Jack wouldn't call the beating a hate crime. It's no secret on the street that the three young men knew each other before. "The kid got a beatin' and he happens to be a Satanist. One worships God, one worships the devil. So what?"

They're not the only ones wondering whether the beating or fight or whatever it was qualifies as a hate crime. The national Libertarian Party has seized on the case as proof that hate crime laws must go. After party spokesperson George Getz saw a reference to the case on the Drudge Report, he fired off a January 13 statement declaring, "Attack on Satanist shows absurdity of hate crime laws." Libertarians argue such legislation veers dangerously close to criminalizing people's thoughts. Getz thinks the unusual circumstances of a Satanist as victim could sharpen the debate.

"Prosecutors seem to be saying that Satanism is a religious belief, which would strike most Americans as bizarre," he explains.

Interestingly, many Satanists also reject the concept of hate crime legislation. Individual libertarians at heart, they see such statutes as redundant attempts at policing, and thought policing at that. Svengali, the Church of Satan minister, sums up the sentiment: "What difference does it make if a victim is a Jew, Sikh, Scientologist, or staggering drunk? Someone committed a heinous crime and should be punished."

This is not to say that Satanists don't want equal treatment under the law. "We are a real religion," says High Priest Gilmore. The Church of Satan has legal status as a "corporation sole" just like any other church. The United States military allows its members to inscribe "Church of Satan" on dog tags. And military chaplains' guidebooks feature a page on its beliefs.

If hate crime laws are meant to protect the most unpopular of religious minorities, Satanists certainly fit the bill. Too often, says Virginia Commonwealth University professor David Bromley, who studies new religions, the public confuses Satanism with the bogus urban legend of underground cults that abuse children, sacrifice babies, and rape women. "It's fairly common for people who are perceived to be Satanists to become targets of harassment," Bromley says. He's heard of people getting cars keyed and windshields smashed. Sometimes the harassment turns physically violent.

As the Queens case heads for trial, the general hate crime debate will continue. But this particular outcome may have meaning only to the two defendants—and to Romano. "Maybe this case will force people to open their eyes and see how their assumptions about my religion are wrong," he says. Maybe he'll be able to walk the streets again, fully himself.

"It's called the justice system," he says. "Maybe they'll do what's just."

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