'Satanic Temple' Considers Legal Firefight over Capitol Display

By: Jim Turner News Service of Florida | Posted: December 20, 2013 3:55 AM
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The Satanic Temple may take Florida to court over a proposed Capitol holiday display that a state agency rejected as "grossly offensive."

Meanwhile the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida says it warned about the possibility of such a dispute after the state allowed a private group to put up a Christian Nativity scene inside the Capitol.

Lucien Greaves, a spokesman for the New York-based temple, said in an email on Thursday that he was "genuinely surprised" the Department of Management Services "would place itself in such a seemingly awkward position" by refusing to allow the temple's display.

However, before filing any legal challenge, Greaves said his group is giving the department a short time to clarify the offensive nature of the display and to see if some compromise could be worked out.

"It seems unthinkable that the DMS should be presuming negative value judgments upon our very religion itself, engaging in blatant viewpoint discrimination, so we must assume that there is something tangible about the content of the display that is demonstrably astray from established community standards," Greaves said.

The department rejected the application for the display on Wednesday.

The state agency had recently approved two Christian Nativity scenes, a pole made of empty beer cans, banners from atheists and a shredded pile of paper that is supposed to resemble the deity of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Department administrative assistant Sherrie K. Routt late Wednesday emailed a denial to Greaves' temple that said "the department'’s position is that your proposed display is grossly offensive during the holiday season."

Agency spokesman Ben Wolf said in an email late Thursday that the rules for the displays in the Capitol rotunda will be reviewed. However, he offered a generalized explanation that the "department" rejected the application and repeated that the "display is grossly offensive during the holiday season."

Gov. Rick Scott's office has referred all comment about the rotunda displays to the department.

The Satanic Temple proposed a display that bannered the phrase "Happy holidays from the Satanic Temple" atop a diorama of an angel falling into hell. A sign on one side of the display referenced Luke 10:18 including the line, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven."

The ACLU of Florida issued a statement on Thursday saying it expected such a scenario would occur in which the state would find itself having violated a group's freedom of speech.

"The only way the state could allow the placement of the original religious display, that some officials wanted to promote, was to create a space where any group could put up whatever message they choose," the ACLU of Florida said in a news release. "If state officials are surprised by how this has turned out, then they don'’t understand how free speech works."

The ACLU added it has yet to hear from the temple, but it would like to hear from any group "wrongfully denied" from being able to put up a display in the rotunda.

The ACLU had argued that no religious symbols should be displayed in government buildings after the Florida Prayer Network's Christian Nativity scene was set up in the Capitol rotunda Dec. 3.

Since that time the Department of Management Services has approved a Festivus pole made of Pabst Blue Ribbon cans by a South Florida political blogger, the Flying Spaghetti Monster display and banners from two atheist groups and the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Chaz Stevens, the political blogger from Deerfield Beach who applied for the Festivus pole display, expressed dismay that the state would reject the Satanic Temple. Stevens requested the sitcom-inspired Festivus pole as his protest against the Nativity scene and to highlight the need for a separation of church and state.

The ACLU noted that governments can't promote certain religious messages to the exclusion of others.

"Claiming that a message that is neither profane nor obscene is 'grossly offensive' is not a basis for government to limit free expression, especially since they have already permitted other displays that similarly depict biblical scenes," the ACLU said. "The group that submitted this display clearly understands that the same constitutional rights that allow other groups to promote their messages apply to them as well."

Wolf, the Department of Management Services spokesman, had previously said proposed displays likely would get approved as long as there is space available and the displays meet state guidelines.

The department limits the height of displays based on where they are located in the rotunda and prohibits displays from blocking permanent memorials such as the Civil Rights and Veterans halls of fame. There are rules against noise and impeding official business.

The Festivus pole, Flying Spaghetti Monster display and Freedom From Religion Foundation banner are approved to be on display until Jan. 3.

The two atheists groups -- the American Atheists and Tallahassee Atheists -- are approved until Jan. 2.

The Florida Prayer Network’s' Nativity is to remain in place until Dec. 27. Another Nativity scene, by a group called Reclaim Christmas for Christ, is planned to be on display from Dec. 27 to Jan. 6 for Three Kings Day.

This isn't Florida's first encounter with the temple, which has also been pressing Oklahoma to erect a Satanic monument outside the Oklahoma State Capitol.

Last January, the "Satanists" drew about six of the self-professed devil worshippers to the steps of the Old Capitol for what they said was an event to praise Scott -- but that was reported to be part of an effort to make a fake documentary.

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