This holiday season, as many as eight state capitols will be graced with a rainbow-festooned Festivus pole—a 6.5-foot-tall display crowned by a glittering disco ball. The pole was designed by Chaz Stevens, head of The Humanity Fund, a scrappy advocacy group that champions separation of church and state, free speech, and constitutional equality. Stevens hopes to place his display in Republican-dominated states—Arkansas, Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, Michigan—as a protest against what he views as their support for laws respecting an establishment of religion.
Several states quickly agreed to display Stevens’ pole, which was wise: As I explained in 2014, the First Amendment bars the government from allowing some groups from expressing their beliefs on state grounds while excluding others based on their viewpoint. Once states allowed Christians and Jews to erect mangers and menorahs in capitol halls, they were constitutionally required to let Stevens display his own expressive symbol.
I spoke with Stevens on Thursday about his campaign to put gay pride Festivus poles in state capitols across the country.
Where did the Festivus pole idea originate?
In 2013, I got a tip saying, did you know there’s a manger up in Tallahassee in the capitol? So I write to Tallahassee, saying I want to put up a Festivus pole, thinking there’s no way in hell they’ll say yes. Three days later, they say yes. Up goes the pole. [Note: Stevens’ precedent paved the way for the Satanic Temple to put up its own capitol display, an angel falling into hellfire, in 2014.] Because of the timing—it’s Festivus, it’s a novelty, it’s Florida, there’s nobody getting killed, we’re not in a war—it goes viral.
Why did you choose a gay pride theme this year?
I am a privileged white heterosexual male in America, a lifelong ally of the gay community—some of my best friends are very homosexual, very out and proud, I love them to death—and we all cheered when the Supreme Court ruling reaffirming the rights of same-sex couples to marry came through. We thought, Finally! It’s about goddamn time!
Right around the corner, Kim Davis and her crazy people in Kentucky say, we’re not gonna give marriage licenses. That just drove me nuts. The very day that happened, I said to myself, those little fuckers! I am going to troll the living shit out of them. I’m going to wrap my pole in gay pride and put a disco ball on the top and stick it in the bowels of the Florida rotunda.
But you’re targeting more than just Florida, right?
Myself and my civil rights lawyer decided: Why not go on the road? I thought, we can take our trolling to an elite level. Let’s go to Arkansas. That’s where Huckabee is. Let’s wag this thing in front of Huckabee’s face and see if we can get him to react. Let’s go to Texas and wave this in front of Ted Cruz. New Jersey, Christie. Florida—well, I had those knuckleheads covered. I said, let’s go troll the living shit out of them.
You’ve already made a lot of people quite angry.
I’ve gotten threats and lawsuits. I got shot at. Somebody said they’d cut my head off. Somebody said, I’m going to blind you with a soldering iron and torture you for two days. My dog got poisoned.
Did your dog survive?
$13,500 later my dog survived! Gave him blood transfusions like Keith Richards. Four blood transfusions! [Note: The story of Richards’ alleged blood transfusions appears to be a myth.]
Obviously, if you’re committed to this cause enough to risk your dog’s life, you’re interested in more than trolling.
Look—take out all the trolling, and this is an argument about separation of church and state. It’s an argument about the need for a robust division between the two. When you don’t have that, when you blend church and state … well, the words theocracy and caliphate come to mind. Look at nations across the globe that don’t have a robust separation of church and state—we’re usually bombing them. Because we don’t like them!
So you see the pole as a kind of testament to, or argument for, the First Amendment?
It’s all about our First Amendment. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to redress your grievances. Freedom to yell at the government and not get arrested. That’s what we’re doing here. We’re stretching the fabric of the First Amendment. That’s what this is all about.
This interview has been edited and condensed.