Oct 15, 2014

Officials in Florida may not ban the Satanic Temple’s holiday display at the State Capitol in Tallahassee simply because they find it offensive, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.In a letter to the Florida Department of Management Services sent today, Americans United warns officials that they must not repeat a decision from 2013 that excluded the Satanic Temple from the rotunda of the State Capitol.The rotunda is legally considered an open forum for speech, and private groups in December often erect holiday-themed displays at their own expense. In 2013, the rotunda housed a nativity scene, a “Festivus Pole” and a rendering of the Pastafarian Flying Spaghetti Monster.But officials rejected the temple’s proposed display, which would have shown an angel falling from the sky into flames, accompanied by Bible verses and the message “Happy Holidays from the Satanic Temple.”On Dec. 18, 2013, the department notified the Satanic Temple that its application had been denied, saying, “The Department’s position is that your proposed display is grossly offensive during the holiday season.”Americans United Executive Director the Rev. Barry W. Lynn said state officials violated the temple’s rights.“Government officials have no right to determine what is ‘offensive’ when it comes to religion,” Lynn said. “If public space is open to all, that must include groups that some people may not like.”AU’s letter reinforces this point. It reads in part, “Members of the religious majority are sometimes offended by the beliefs of religious minorities, and vice/versa. But the Satanic Temple is not required to censor itself in order to take advantage of a forum supposedly open to all.”AU’s letter asserts that the state, by excluding the temple’s message from an open forum, has violated the free-speech rights of the temple, its freedom of religion and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.The Satanic Temple describes itself as a religious organization dedicated to principles of empathy, personal autonomy and empirical reasoning. In early December of 2013, the temple submitted an application to put up a holiday display that it said would “contribute to the plurality of the community by representing the spirit of goodwill from other faiths.”The temple is re-submitting its application early this year so that any problems can be resolved ahead of time. Americans United is representing the temple in this matter.Given the approach of the holiday season, AU’s letter requests a response within 14 days.“The First Amendment applies to all religions, not just popular ones,” said AU Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper. “Since it has opened the Florida State Capitol to private speech, the state must include everyone, even those whose religious beliefs it finds ‘offensive.’”