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Politics

Manger scene draws competition at Florida Capitol


Published:   |   Updated: December 24, 2013 at 08:42 AM

TALLAHASSEE — Christmastime at the Florida Capitol has turned into the silly season.

First, state officials allowed a private group to put up a Christian nativity scene inside the Capitol’s ground-floor rotunda.

Then, the deluge: To make sure there was no appearance of favoring one group or faith, officials allowed other holiday displays.

Now there are posterboards from two atheist groups flanking the manger.

On the other side of the rotunda, a banner from the Freedom From Religion Foundation is neighbors with an office chair piled with shredded paper and “googly” eyes, meant to look like the deity of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Nearby is a 6-foot pole made of Pabst Blue Ribbon cans, inspired by the made-up Festivus holiday famous from a 1997 “Seinfeld” episode.

Chaz Stevens, a South Florida political blogger who built the pole, called it “my ridiculous statement versus what I consider, as an atheist, as their ridiculous statement.”

Most recently, the Department of Management Services, which reviews and approves proposed displays on state property, rejected one from the New York-based Satanic Temple.

“The display is grossly offensive during the holiday season,” Ben Wolf, spokesman for the department said Monday. “The rules regarding the area will be reviewed.”

A photograph of the display provided by the temple, however, shows it looks more like an elementary school science project. The group now is threatening legal action.

“We feel we were wrongly denied the opportunity to place our display within the Capitol rotunda and, as the (department) failed to reply to our offer to revise the holiday display we had offered, we are left to conclude that DMS is engaged in blatant viewpoint discrimination,” temple spokesman Lucien Greaves said on Monday.

Told you so, said the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

“This is the knot that the state tied itself into because officials refused to see that there are more appropriate places for displays of religious messages than the Capitol rotunda,” said Baylor Johnson, ACLU of Florida spokesman.

“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,” he said. “If state officials are surprised by how this has turned out, then they don’t understand how free speech works.”’

The New York temple proposed a placard with the phrase, “Happy holidays from the Satanic Temple,” atop a diorama of an angel falling into hell.

Pam Olsen, president of the Florida Prayer Network, one of the groups behind the nativity scene, has said the other displays only “shine more light” on her group’s message. She said that message should not be viewed as 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.”

Dan O’Keefe, co-writer of the “Seinfeld” Festivus episode, told Mother Jones magazine earlier this month that the nativity scene and the Festivus pole “have equal right to be there.”

O’Keefe, who couldn’t be reached Monday, came up with Festivus with help from other “Seinfeld” writers and based it on an actual alternative holiday celebrated by his father.

Festivus is a non-commercial festival “for the rest of us” in the Christmas and year-end holiday season.

Festivus, celebrated Dec. 23, 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. Then they engage in “feats of strength.”

If the nativity scene is “not publicly funded, I don’t see it as violating the separation of church and state, but at the same time I could see why someone would want to counter [anything that seems like] state embrace of any specific religion,” O’Keefe told Mother Jones. “So good for him,” referring to Stevens.

Wolf 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 also 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 nativity is to remain in place until Friday. Another nativity scene, by a group called Reclaim Christmas for Christ, is planned to be on display from Friday to Jan. 6 for Three Kings Day.

Brant Copeland, pastor of Tallahassee’s First Presbyterian Church, within walking distance of the Capitol, visited the rotunda last week and blogged about it.

What’s on display “doesn’t offend me so much as it disappoints me,” he wrote. “Given all the truly important issues facing our state, it seems a shame to waste so much energy fighting over stuff that my grandmother would have called ‘just plain tacky.’”

Information from the News Service of Florida was included in this report.

jrosica@tampatrib.com

(850) 765-0807

Twitter: @jlrosicaTBO

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