January 2015 Church & State | Featured

Last month’s holiday season took on a new look in Florida after state officials agreed to allow the Satanic Temple to erect a display in the rotunda of the State Capitol in Tallahassee following intervention from Americans United.

Although officials had previously labeled the display “grossly offensive,” they reversed themselves after AU threatened to file a lawsuit on the Temple’s behalf.

In 2013, the state designated the rotunda as an open forum for private speech following a request to display a crèche from the Illinois-based American Nativity Scene Committee. As a result, private groups that receive approval are permitted in December to erect holiday-themed displays at their own expense.

The rotunda in 2013 housed a nativity scene, an atheist-themed message, a six-foot tall “Festivus Pole” made of beer cans and a rendering of the Pastafarian Flying Spaghetti Monster – yet the Temple was denied access on the grounds that the proposed display was offensive.

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 in 2013 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.”

DMS’s denial came Dec. 18, just 13 days after the proposal had been submitted and only seven days before Christmas. This left the Satanic Temple 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.

This year the Satanic Temple plan­ned ahead. With the help of Americans United, the group in October submitted a new request to erect its display inside the capitol rotunda. 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!” 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.”

(Temple members don’t literally worship Satan. The Temple is essentially a humanistic group that uses Satan as a symbol for anyone who challenges religious authority or established dogma. 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.”)

Americans United, on behalf of the Temple, also sent a letter to the department explaining that rejection of the Temple’s proposed display would violate the Satanic Temple’s freedom of speech, freedom of religion and right to equal protection under the law.

In an email sent Dec. 2, state officials informed the Satanic Temple that it had permission to erect its display from Dec. 22-29.

AU, which had been preparing to file suit on the Satanic Temple’s behalf, welcomed state officials’ decision but warned that the department’s written policy excluding “of­fensive” displays continues to present constitutional problems.

“Free speech is for everyone and all groups,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, in a press statement. “State officials simply can’t get into the business of deciding that some unpopular messages are ‘offensive’ and must be banned.”

AU Senior Litigation Counsel Greg­ory M. Lipper agreed.

“Although we are pleased that the state has finally agreed to allow the Satanic Temple’s display, our clients should not have been forced to find legal counsel and plan a lawsuit just to get access to an open forum,” Lipper said. “The state can’t give itself the authority to decide whether certain religious messages are ‘offensive’ – it needs to allow everyone’s speech or no one’s speech.”