It’s the day after Thanksgiving, and soon enough Christmas trees, menorahs, Kwanzaa candelabras and nativity scenes will be dotting public buildings and squares in cities and towns across the United States. In Brooklyn, the orthodox Jewish group known as Chabad will erect “the world’s largest menorah” in Grand Army Plaza.
The First Amendment prohibits the government from taking actions “respecting an establishment of religion,” but the Supreme Court has held for decades that these private holiday displays in public places are no breach of the church-state wall. As long as the “principal or primary effect” is not to advance religion but to celebrate the season, religious groups are welcome to erect their own holiday displays in public areas. There is nothing wrong, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in a 1989 case, with a “message of pluralism and freedom of belief during the holiday season.”
Over the years, some rather less well-established religions have seen this piece of jurisprudence as an opportunity to insert themselves into the public square—and into the public debate over the role of public religious symbols. First we had the Pastafarians, a nearly decade-old faith that worships the Flying Spaghetti Monster and ridicules advocates of creationism and Intelligent Design. Here’s a poster:
A year ago, the Pastafarians successfully lobbied to add a noodly display inside the Florida Capitol building. An atheist who observes Festivus, the Seinfeld-hatched holiday, got the Sunshine State to erect his pole made of beer cans so that the rest of us can appreciate it. And, yes, a group of Satanists known as the Satanic Temple has indicated it wants to join the fray with a display of an angel falling from the sky into a fiery pit. It looks like this:
Florida draws the line at Satan. The display is “grossly offensive,” officials say. But it’s unclear how this judgment would permit Florida to rebuff the Satanists, given how the courts have interpreted the constitutional rights of religious groups in this context. Lawyers for the Satanic Temple insist that Florida rethink its stance:
The Department’s policy of banning displays it deems religiously offensive violates the Free Speech Clause, Establishment Clause, Free Exercise Clause, and Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. These constitutional provisions require the Department to accept the Satanic Temple’s display this year.
The Capitol has thus far ignored the letter, so it remains to be seen if Lucifer will join baby Jesus and friends inside the Florida Capitol building this holiday season.
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