December 2014 Church & State | Featured

Last December, the rotunda of the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee hosted a number of privately erected holiday symbols.

Many were what you would expect to see in December: a Christmas tree, a nativity scene and a menorah.

But a few were a little unusual. The rotunda played host to 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. Not far from that was a depiction of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a symbol of a web-based parody religion often associated with non-belief.

But there was one symbol that was not welcome: A display proposed by the Florida affiliate of the Satanic Temple was denied space in the rotunda because state officials felt it was “grossly offensive.” Temple members disagreed, but state officials ignored the Temple’s request to identify what about the display was offensive. Because the Temple made its request in December, it didn’t have enough time to fully challenge the officials’ decision, which came just one week before Christmas.

This year the Satanic Temple planned ahead. With the help of Americans United, the group in October submitted a new request to hang its display inside the capitol rotunda. Temple officials are awaiting a decision.

The proposed display is a diorama that depicts an angel falling into a pit of fire above the caption: “Happy Holidays from the Satanic Temple!” Stories of fallen angels are common in the Bible, and the Temple’s display even contains a Bible verse. It quotes Luke 10:18, which reads, “And he said unto them, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven.”

The battle over symbols in the capitol rotunda goes back a few years. Until 2013, the only holiday displays allowed in the rotunda were a Christmas tree and a menorah. Apparently, some state officials wanted to add a dose of religion and accepted a request to display a crèche from the Illinois-based American Nativity Scene Committee. To do that, the officials had to turn the rotunda into an open public forum last year – or so they said.

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. Beyond that, the rules said nothing about appearance or content of images and didn’t attempt to define what might constitute an offensive display.

In fact, the rejection letter the Satanic Temple received last year made no mention of a violation of any of these requirements. Instead, DMS told the group its display was denied because it is “grossly offensive during the holiday season.”

That description seemed to be at odds with the Satanic Temple’s stated intent. In its application, the organization said its five-foot by five-foot dioramas “of religious symbols and images that adhere to community standards... contribute to the plurality of the community by representing the spirit of good will from other faiths.”

But DMS was not swayed, and since its denial came Dec. 18 – just 13 days after the proposal had been submitted and only seven days before Christmas – the Satanic Temple was left with little time for recourse. The Temple did, however, attempt to clarify what exactly was offensive about its image, but it never received a response from DMS.

“In a nation that respects religious liberty, viewpoint discrimination is simply intolerable,” Satanic Temple spokesman Lucien Greaves said in an October 2014 statement. “Our holiday display sends a very important, affirmative message that goes above and beyond that of superficial season’s greetings. It’s a message of religious freedom and church-state separation expressed in the state’s neutrality.”

Further, it seems not everyone shared DMS’s assessment – even representatives of religious organizations.

“I just have to laugh,” Pam Olsen, with the Nativity Scene Committee, told the Palm Beach Post last year. “If they want to get me mad, it’s not working. I think it’s great because it just brings more attention to Jesus.”

(Temple members don’t literally worship Satan, nor do they engage in any illegal activities. Rather, they use the archetypal symbol of a fallen being who dared to challenge God to promote humanistic values such as empathy, personal autonomy and empirical reasoning. In a recent press statement, the Temple said, “The temple is atheistic and does not believe in a supernatural Satan – rather, it sees Satan as a symbol of the Eternal Rebel in opposition to arbitrary authority.”)

Hoping for a different outcome this year, the Temple enlisted the help of Americans United.

On Oct. 15, AU sent a letter to DMS along with an application for the Temple’s display. In its letter, AU said the state cannot deny a display in a public forum simply because some may consider it offensive. “Members of the religious majority are sometimes offended by the beliefs of religious minorities, and vice/ ­versa,” the letter noted. “But the Satanic Temple is not required to censor itself in order to take advantage of a forum supposedly open to all.”

The letter also made note of DMS’s potential violation of the Temple’s constitutional rights.

“Any rejection of the Satanic Temple’s display based on its potential offensiveness would constitute viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause,” the letter asserted. “In addition, the policy provision banning ‘offensive’ speech is unconstitutional on its face, because it gives the Department unfettered discretion to suppress unpopular messages.”

Perhaps in preparation for another dispute with the Satanic Temple, DMS re-wrote its policy to include a prohibition on so-called “offensive” displays. Americans United, however, argued that the Constitution doesn’t permit the government to decide whether or not speech is “offensive” or to exclude speech from a public forum on that basis.

“Government officials have no right to determine what is ‘offensive’ when it comes to religion,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, in a statement. “If public space is open to all, that must include groups that some people may not like.”

Americans United initially asked DMS officials to respond to the Satanic Temple’s request by Oct. 29. The officials ignored the request, so on Nov. 6 AU attorneys upped the ante. They wrote to the officials again and told them that if they did not reply by Nov. 14, Americans United would file suit. (The matter remained unresolved as this issue of Church & State went to press.)

Meanwhile, media attention about the story led some people to overreact. One Ohio man emailed Americans United and vowed to destroy any Temple display that was brought to his community.

“I live in New Paris, Ohio, and I ABSOLUTELY DARE YOU to try and put up a Satanic display in our courthouse,” he wrote. “I WILL DESTROY THAT DISPLAY BEFORE IT IS EVEN FULLY ASSEMBLED!!! I will also physically remove anyone who tries to put up a display of that nature. Try it. I dare you.”

AU attorneys say they won’t be intimidated by such threats if they arise in Florida. They point out that state officials simply can’t create an open forum and then deny groups with views deemed unpopular access to it.

If the matter ends up in court, AU will argue that the Satanic Temple’s free-speech rights have been violated.

“The First Amendment applies to all religions, not just popular ones,” said AU Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper in a media statement. “Since it has opened the Florida State Capitol to private speech, the state must include everyone, even those whose religious beliefs it finds ‘offensive.’”