Last month, I wrote about the Satanic Temple’s efforts to erect a religious display of an angel falling into a pit of fire in the rotunda of the Florida Capitol. The Florida government officially permits religious displays during the holiday season; in 2013, it allowed Christians, Jews, secular humanists, atheists, and Pastafarians to construct testaments to their faith. But Florida forbade the Satanic Temple from placing its own display in the Capitol, labeling it “grossly offensive.” So this year, the temple reapplied, with some additional legal backing: Americans United for the Separation of Church and State threatened to sue Florida for violating the temple’s free speech rights if the state refused to permits its display.
On Tuesday, the temple won. Florida’s Department of Management Services officially approved the satanic display for the 2014 holiday season, to be hosted from Dec. 22-29 in the Capitol rotunda. What changed between 2013 and 2014? Unless the state spontaneously changed its mind about how “grossly offensive” the satanic display is, it seems likely that the looming lawsuit convinced the government that the temple had free speech rights, after all.
Florida, of course, could have avoided this entire mess if it simply disallowed the display of any religious exhibitions on government grounds. That would be a simple solution, and an admirable way of respecting the separation of church and state. Once the government opened the door to one religion, however, it was constitutionally required to let them all in, up to and including a religious display of an angel falling into a fiery pit of hell. To discriminate between different viewpoints would be a violation of the First Amendment.
That principle, ironically, was laid down by the Supreme Court’s conservatives, as was the notion that the government can sponsor religious displays in the first place. Neither the Satanic Temple, nor Americans United, is particularly pleased with the conservative justices’ campaign to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state. But now that the wall is crumbling, it’s gratifying to see groups like the Satanic Temple freely express their faith in the very heart of the Florida government.