During past holidays, the rotunda has hosted a six-foot “Festivus pole” made out of beer cans, a Pastafarian Flying Spaghetti Monster and a Nativity scene, all funded by private organizations.
The Satanic Temple’s display, which also features a verse from Isaiah, is the same one rejected by Florida officials as “grossly offensive” last year, Temple spokesperson Lucien Greaves said in an e-mail.
“The only difference is that this year we arrived with lawyers,” Greaves said.
Last year, the Satanic Temple sent in the required application to have its display on the rotunda and received an e-mailed rejection in late December, Gregory M. Lipper, an attorney for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said in an interview. The rejection e-mail called the Temple’s proposed display “grossly offensive during the holiday season,” and the timing gave the group virtually no chance to appeal.
So, the display was left out of what Lipper described as a somewhat crowded field of diverse holiday displays, including some from atheist groups. “All of these displays are in pretty close quarters. The two atheist displays flanked the nativity scene,” he said.
It should be noted that the Satanic Temple is one of a handful of groups that, rather than literally worshiping Satan, uses the story of Satan as an allegory for its belief system. Although the Satanic Temple defines its beliefs as “religious,” the group differentiates its religious beliefs from a belief in the “supernatural,” including Satan.
“To embrace the name Satan is to embrace rational inquiry removed from super-naturalism and archaic tradition-based superstitions,” the Satanic Temple’s site explains.
The Satanic Temple is also pretty politically active when it comes to the intersection of religion and free speech; the group made headlines this year, for instance, when it proposed to place a 7-foot-tall Satanic statue in front of the Oklahoma state capitol, next to a statue of the Ten Commandments. The group is not affiliated with the Church of Satan, which is a completely different organization.
Believing its religious viewpoint should be included in an area designated for open speech, the Satanic Temple submitted its holiday-display application this year in October, several weeks in advance of the deadline. The group didn’t hear either way about its application until this week, about a month after Americans United sent a letter to Florida officials warning that the group would file a lawsuit should the display be implicitly or explicitly rejected. Lipper said the group was “very close to filing the lawsuit” when Florida officials sent a short e-mail to a local representative of the Satanic Temple to say the display was approved.
So, advocates are hailing the decision as a victory for free speech, as well as for (a non-literal) Satan. But there’s still a problem, according to Lipper: After last year’s holiday season, the Florida Department of Management Services issued a written policy on the Capitol forum reserving the department’s right to reject displays “that may be potentially harmful, offensive, or threatening in nature.”
That policy appears to still stand, and it’s a policy that Americans United calls unconstitutional. “Just because you’re offended by their particular religious viewpoint doesn’t mean you can reject them,” Lipper said. “It gives the government unfettered discretion to accept messages they’re comfortable with and reject messages they’re not.”