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As State Mulls Review, Christians and Atheists Agree: Keep Florida Capitol a Free Speech Zone

| January 7, 2014

It'd be a shame to lose the zone. (Second Judicial Circuit)

It’d be a shame to lose the zone. (Second Judicial Circuit)

Christians and atheists may have found a little common patch of ground, the rotunda of the Florida Capitol as a space to express themselves.

The threat of a lawsuit is hovering over the state’s rejection of a satanic display, and the rotunda exhibit policy is set to undergo a staff review. But the prevailing view among those who have recently jumped at the chance to use the public floor space to express their beliefs is to simply let everyone have their say.

“They designated a free speech zone for everyone to express their religious and non-religious beliefs,” said Austin Aycock, spokesman for the Tallahassee Atheists. “If they’re going to do it, they can’t have limits.”

The Tallahassee Atheists, The American Atheists Florida Regional Directors and the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation all put up seasonal banners this year to counter a Christian nativity scene.

“I hope the state can find a way to make all voices heard and to keep everyone’s freedom of speech alive here in the Capitol rotunda,” said Randall Smith, Knights of Columbus grand knight of the Good Shepherd Church parish in Tallahassee. “All capitols should be like the state of Florida, and I hope they can find a way to make room for everybody.”

Department of Management Services spokesman Ben Wolf said in an email that the department appreciates “the input we receive from all groups across the state” regarding the display policy, but added there is no timetable on the review.

“We will take as much time as needed,” Wolf said.

DMS 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. Also, the department will allow displays as long as there is available space, but does have rules against noise and impeding official business.

The Knights of Columbus on Monday put up a decorated wooden cross in the Capitol for the group called Reclaim Christmas for Christ to mark Three Kings Day and the Christian feast of the Epiphany.

The cross display follows diverse exhibits that have dotted the rotunda this holiday season, including a pole made of empty beer cans to mark the sitcom-created Festivus holiday and a shredded pile of paper that is supposed to resemble the deity of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

“When you see a nativity scene, and right beside it you see a pole with beer cans on it, we think it makes our point,” Smith said. “We think it further shows the seriousness of the nativity scene” versus other presentations that are not as serious.

The free speech issue exploded this year after the Florida Prayer Network put up the first nativity display in modern history in the Capitol on Dec. 3.

The nativity scene joined a menorah that has been displayed in prior years. But the Christian display went up with a lot of media fanfare.

The policy review will be undertaken as the ACLU of Florida continues to warn the Department of Management Services that a lawsuit remains an option over the department’s rejection of an exhibition proposed by the New York-based Satanic Temple.

“What we hope happens is that the department will realize you can’t pick and choose which messages or organizations get represented if you create an open forum — or that they make the determination after all that’s happened that maybe creating a venue for religious messages isn’t the best use of a government building in the first place,” said ACLU of Florida spokesman Baylor Johnson.

Johnson added that the ACLU is not formally representing the temple.

The Department of Management Services rejected the temple’s proposal on grounds that it was “grossly offensive.”

Department officials have not defined what they have considered offensive about the temple’s proposal that would have 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 temple’s display was the only proposal denied by the state agency.

Pam Olsen, president of the Florida Prayer Network, said that while the Satanists’ proposal was “amateurish,” she didn’t think it should have been rejected.

“I would have been okay with it because I’m not afraid of what they’re saying,” Olsen said.

Olsen added she hoped the Department of Management Services doesn’t use the Satanists’ application as a reason to keep her and others out in the future.

“That was the whole reason they did this, to shut us down,” Olsen said.

Chaz Stevens, a Deerfield Beach resident behind the Festivus pole of beer cans, said when his display went up that the intent of his admittedly “ridiculous” effort was to make a political statement on the need for the separation of church and state.

–Jim Turner, News Service of Florida

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5 Responses for “As State Mulls Review, Christians and Atheists Agree: Keep Florida Capitol a Free Speech Zone”

  1. Genie says:

    I just love the way everyone is forgetting about our free speech rights under the First Amendment to the Constitution. Of course, I suppose that is to be expected….we don’t teach the Constitution anymore.

    I wonder why?

  2. ryan says:

    Unfortunately, the sad part is that trivial issues like a display seems to be such a scary thing to some that the system is tied up with frivolous lawsuits like this. It is not a state endorsement of religion to allow a nativity scene and menorah in front of a capital building during the holiday season. It is not the same as punishing a kid at school who did not want to participate in prayer. No one said anything about the kid that was punished for making a prayer gesture out of excitement when he won a track meet or the other kid who was flagged for making a prayer gesture when he scored a touchdown, and the TD was not counted as a result. I am not extremely religious at all, but I am getting tired of people giving harmful religious groups a pass while going after frivolous crap like some display.

  3. Ruth Walker says:

    I think displays showing the actual origins of the bible stories should be there, including the video here:

  4. Sherry Epley says:

    Then there’s the separation of church and state as intended by our founders:

    The phrase “separation of church and state” is derived from a letter written by President Thomas Jefferson in 1802 to Baptists from Danbury, Connecticut, and published in a Massachusetts newspaper soon thereafter. In that letter, referencing the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, Jefferson writes:

    Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.[15]

    Another early user of the term was James Madison, the principal drafter of the United States Bill of Rights. In a 1789 debate in the House of Representatives regarding the draft of the First Amendment, the following was said:

    August 15, 1789. Mr. [Peter] Sylvester [of New York] had some doubts…He feared it [the First Amendment] might be thought to have a tendency to abolish religion altogether…Mr. [Elbridge] Gerry [of Massachusetts] said it would read better if it was that “no religious doctrine shall be established by law.”…Mr. [James] Madison [of Virginia] said he apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that “Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law.”…[T]he State[s]…seemed to entertain an opinion that under the clause of the Constitution…it enabled them [Congress] to make laws of such a nature as might…establish a national religion; to prevent these effects he presumed the amendment was intended…Mr. Madison thought if the word “National” was inserted before religion, it would satisfy the minds of honorable gentlemen…He thought if the word “national” was introduced, it would point the amendment directly to the object it was intended to prevent.[65]

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