TALLAHASSEE: Satanic Temple Offends Capitol Grounds with Public Display During Holidays

In this undated handout photo courtesy of Douglas Mesner a Holiday display from the Satanic Temple is seen in at the State Capitol in Tallahassee. PHOTO COURTESY OF Douglas Mesner
In this undated handout photo courtesy of Douglas Mesner a Holiday display from the Satanic Temple is seen in at the State Capitol in Tallahassee. PHOTO COURTESY OF Douglas Mesner

By Matt Dixon
TBO/Naples Daily News Bureau
Published: May 24, 2015   |   Updated: May 25, 2015 at 07:13 AMTALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott’s office considered pulling the “Freedom of Speech” provision from rules that govern the use of state buildings, according to a draft document considered by administration attorneys.The consideration came as a group was pushing for the second year in a row to set up a controversial “satanic Temple” display next to other Capitol holiday displays.The rule, which ultimately was not changed, includes language that allows for the “freedom of expression consistent with the first and fourteenth amendments of the United States Constitution.” It applies to public spaces like the first floor of the Capitol or the rotunda area on the fourth floor, both frequent venues for news conferences and protesters.

In the proposed rule change that was considered by the Scott administration, the existing free-speech language had a black line drawn through it and the section was renamed “peaceable assembly.”

The proposal removed any of the “freedom of speech” protections outlined in the rule and replaced them with language that simply referred to a portion of the rule that requires people who want to use the Capitol to submit a request three days in advance. That section also included a proposed change that would lengthen from 3 to 30 days the amount of time in advance a group would need to request use of a public building.

The proposed rules change also changed “any person” to “any government entity” in a section that dealt with who could construct “exhibits, posters, signs, displays” in public buildings.

The changes were drafted by attorneys in the Department of Management Services, which oversees state facilities. The department answers to Scott, who appoints its secretary. On Nov. 5, 2014, the draft was faxed from DMS General Counsel Bruce Conroy to Ben Gibson, an assistant general counsel in Scott’s office.

“The decision was made not to pursue the changes reflected in this particular document,” said John Tupps, a Scott spokesman. “We continue to work with DMS on how to best manage all properties they oversee.”

Tupps would not answer why the administration was considering removing the “Freedom of Speech” provision, why the administration dropped the change, or who made that decision.

After a week of promising to answer questions, on May 15 a DMS spokeswoman said the department could not address the issue and referred questions to Scott’s office.

The consideration came as DMS was fighting with the group called satanic Temple, which for the second year in a row proposed placing a display featuring an angel falling into the pits of Hell next to other displays during the Christmas holidays on the Capitol’s first floor.

The group says it is not a collection of devil worshippers, but wants to “counteract” other religiously themed displays. In 2013, DMS called the group’s display “grossly offensive” and denied its application. When making its second request in 2014, the group brought in the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which threatened a legal challenge.

The controversial display was damaged when a 54-year-old woman tried to remove it from the Capitol one day after it was setup. She told police the display was “not right.” The department has a practice of allowing nontraditional holiday displays, including a stack of empty beer cans celebrating Festivus, the fictional holiday made famous by the television show Seinfeld, and displays put up by atheist groups.

In September 2013, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is overseen by Scott and the three-member Cabinet, implemented rule changes to limit use of the Capitol complex in the wake of large protests in the Capitol that included groups sitting in Scott’s office 24-hours-a-day for 31 days.

The rule changes limited access to the Capitol to Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. or 30 minutes following a Legislative or Executive meeting. The changes also banned overnight stays in the Capitol for any reason.

The group, known as the “Dream Defenders,” was protesting the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who made national headlines after shooting and killing Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager.

Matt.Dixon@naplesnews.com (352) 233-0777

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