Christmas Truce: Nativity Scene No Longer Gracing Fla. Capitol Rotunda

Let this saga be a lesson to government officials who want to promote religion in public buildings. It’s just not worth the trouble.

It seems Satan and a self-proclaimed “Catholic warrior” have driven a nativity scene from the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee – at least for this year.

In response to controversy caused by seasonal displays in the capitol rotunda last year, including a display by the Satanic Temple that was vandalized, a group that had previously sponsored a crèche decided to discontinue its practice.

My hope is that the Christ in Christmas is louder than a wood display and some figurines,’’ Florida Prayer Network President Pam Olsen told the Miami Herald. “We pray that Christ’s message of hope and peace will be communicated in a much stronger way this year from Florida’s state Capitol, by us not placing the nativity in the rotunda.”

This conflict goes back a couple years. Florida officials had long allowed a Christmas tree at the capitol as well as a menorah. But in 2013, someone decided to increase the dose of religion and accepted a request to display a crèche from the Illinois-based American Nativity Scene Committee. In order to avoid a First Amendment violation, officials had to turn the rotunda into an open public forum – or so they said.

Enter the Satanic Temple, a group that uses the worship of Satan as an allegory for rejection of the supernatural and the embrace of reason. In 2013, the Temple asked to put up a display of its own, but its request was rejected on the grounds that the proposal was “grossly offensive during the holiday season.”

That denial came seemingly from nowhere. Ben Wolf, Florida Department of Management Services (DMS) director of communications, told the Tallahassee Democrat in December 2013 that any holiday display is allowed as long as there is space available and certain guidelines are met.

Those rules state that displays must not hinder the flow of traffic inside the capitol building or block any permanent installations. There is also a height limitation of six feet.

You’ll notice that those rules made no mention of offensiveness. To make matters worse, the Temple’s request was denied just seven days before Christmas, leaving little time for further action.

What’s more, state officials permitted displays in 2013 that some might consider “offensive.” Among them was a six-foot tall “Festivus” pole – a reference to a fake holiday featured in the 1990s sitcom “Seinfeld” – made out of 14 empty cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and a depiction of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a symbol of a web-based parody religion often associated with non-belief.

The Satanic Temple is not the sort of group that gives up easily, so in October 2014 it submitted a proposal asking to put up a diorama that depicts an angel falling into a pit of fire above the caption: “Happy Holidays from the Satanic Temple!”

And this time, the Temple came prepared with some legal firepower courtesy of attorneys at Americans United. AU informed Florida officials that they had no right to deny a display because it is “offensive.” Under threat of legal action officials eventually gave up their resistance and allowed the Temple to put up its display. On Dec. 22, “Satan” took his place alongside the Festivus pole and the nativity scene in the rotunda.

Unfortunately, that was not the end of the story. Just one day after the display was erected, Susan Hemeryck, a Tea Party activist wearing a “Catholic warrior” t-shirt, strolled into the rotunda and brazenly attacked the Temple’s diorama. She was arrested and charged with criminal mischief, but in a disappointing development those charges were later dropped.  

Clearly, the situation last year got out of hand – though not because the Satanic Temple did anything wrong. So it’s no surprise that this year, Olsen reevaluated her group’s public nativity scene.

“I have been pondering this for a while,” Olsen said. “The racial tensions and mass murders, the shootings at the Planned Parenthood and in California – something is very wrong in our country. We need to step back and say we need to stop. Let the sound of the Christ child bring hope, joy and peace instead of dissension.”

Let this saga be a lesson to government officials who want to promote religion in public buildings. It’s just not worth the trouble. While the Herald made no mention of the forum officially closing, it would be better were that the case.

There are plenty of private spaces where religious symbols can be displayed. Government buildings should focus on government business – and that should never include promoting religion.