Americans United for Separation of Church and State today announced that officials in Florida have agreed to allow the Satanic Temple to erect a holiday display at the State Capitol in Tallahassee this month.
Although officials had previously labeled the display “offensive,” they reversed themselves after Americans United threatened to file a lawsuit on the Temple’s behalf.
The state has designated the rotunda as an open forum for private speech, and private groups in December often erect holiday-themed displays at their own expense. In 2013, the rotunda housed a nativity scene, an atheist-themed message, a “Festivus Pole” and a rendering of the Pastafarian Flying Spaghetti Monster – yet the Temple was denied access on the grounds that the proposed display was “grossly offensive.”
In an attempt to avoid similar problems this year, the Temple submitted its application in October, to give the Department of Management Services plenty of time to deal with it. 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.
Americans United, 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 the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “State officials simply can’t get into the business of deciding that some unpopular messages are ‘offensive’ and must be banned.”
The Temple’s proposed display depicts an angel falling from the sky into flames, accompanied by Bible verses and the message “Happy Holidays from the Satanic Temple.” The Temple describes itself as a religious organization dedicated to principles of empathy, personal autonomy and empirical reasoning.
In an email sent yesterday, state officials informed the Satanic Temple that its display may be erected Dec. 22-29.
“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,” said AU Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper. “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.”
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.