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‘Festivus’ pole at Florida Capitol to protest Nativity scene

BY JIM TURNER
The News Service of Florida

Published:   |   Updated: December 11, 2013 at 02:19 PM

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TALLAHASSEE —A nearly 6-foot-tall pole made from emptied beer cans, marking a parody holiday, has been put up in the Florida Capitol this week as a not-so-subtle protest to the recent placement of a Nativity scene.

The homemade “Festivus” pole was erected Wednesday in the same first-floor rotunda as a Nativity scene depicting the birth of Jesus Christ, which was put up last week by the Florida Prayer Network.

Chaz Stevens, a Deerfield Beach resident applied to the state Department of Management Services to put the Festivus pole on display. Stevens, who operates a blog that focuses on South Florida politics, said the intent of the pole is to make a political statement on the need for the separation of church and state.

He compared the Festivus pole to the Nativity scene as “my ridiculous statement versus what I consider, as an atheist, as their ridiculous statement.”

Festivus is a holiday in a script for the TV sitcom “Seinfeld” as a non-commercial festival “for the rest of us” in the Christmas and year-end holiday season. In the show, it is celebrated Dec. 23 and comes with a ceremonial post-dinner “airing of the grievances” in which participants describe how they have been disappointed by others in the past year and engage in “feats of strength.”

Festivus purists may favor a more-simple unadorned aluminum pole, but Stevens said the use of Pabst Blue Ribbon cans — he wouldn’t say who emptied the cans — is in line with the irreverent spirit of those who celebrate the holiday.

Late last week, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which advocates for non-theists and promotes separation of church and state, also set up a “Bill of Rights nativity” banner in the rotunda. The foundation’s banner states: “At this season of the Winter Solstice, we celebrate the Birth of the Unconquered Sun — the TRUE reason for the season.”

Pam Olsen, president of the Florida Prayer Network, said last week that such displays only “shine more light” on her group’s message that she said isn’t to be viewed as a state-sponsorship of religion.

“It’s their right, they have a right to exercise freedom of speech, that’s what America is about,” Olsen said. “It doesn’t faze me, it doesn’t faze the God I serve.”

Olsen said of the banner, “The foundation celebrates the birth of the unconquered sun, but I know the creator of the son.”

Stevens, a proud card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union, requested the Festivus display space from the state Department of Management Services after reading about the Nativity display.

“As long as it meets those guidelines and there is space available in the capitol, DMS is happy to allow all cultures, and denominations, and committees and groups to put up their holiday displays,” said Ben Wolf, a spokesman for the Department of Management Services.

The department does limit 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.

Stevens got Deerfield Beach to put up a similar, but taller pole last year after a local group put up a Nativity scene outside a city fire house.

In October, Deerfield Beach officials decided to ban all holiday displays on city-owned land that aren’t put up by the local government.

“If you follow this and really are into this separation of church and state, holiday display thing, it’s a battle that’s fought all across America,” Stevens said. “It’s not as simple as yes or no. It’s really a local issue.”

The Festivus pole went up a day after Gov. Rick Scott and the members of the Florida Cabinet held a tree-lighting ceremony to mark the arrival of Florida-grown Christmas trees outside their first floor offices.

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.

Stevens’ pole went where a menorah had been located for Hannukah, a display by the Chabad Lubavitch of the Panhandle-Tallahassee. Both the Festivus pole and the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s banner are permitted to remain in place until Jan. 3.

Stevens said the problem with allowing one group to use public space to express its beliefs is that when one is allowed there will be more from even more-diverse groups.

“I’ve got kind a bizarre mind at times, but I’m sure that somebody’s not going to show the restraint that I have,” Stevens said.

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