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Christians, Atheists Want To Keep Capitol A Free Speech Zone

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – 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.

“The News Service of Florida’s JIM TURNER contributed to this report.”

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