The Festivus pole, a relic from the 1990s NBC sitcom "Seinfeld," made an appearance in the Florida Capitol on Tuesday, after a self-described "militant atheist" received permission to set it up near a Nativity scene.
"A Pabst Blue Ribbon Festivus pole is a symbol of ridiculousness," Chaz Stephens, editor in chief of South Florida advocacy blog MAOS (My Acts of Sedition), told The Christian Post on Tuesday. He set up the pole, not to celebrate a 1990s holiday, but to protest the Nativity scene and other religious monuments set up in public spaces.
"It's a made up holiday from the 1990s, but it's a symbol of separation of church and state, in my mind," Stephens explained.
Pam Olsen, founder and president of the Florida Prayer Network, which set up the Nativity scene, remarked that the Florida Capitol has had a menorah for several years, during which no protest occurred, but setting up a Nativity scene has opened the gates of…Festivus. If groups protesting Christian monuments in public places had their way, "Jesus would be removed from everywhere," Olsen said.
Stephens told CP, "As a card-carrying member of the ACLU, I'm a firm believer in the First Amendment separation of church and state." And he demanded to know why Christians can't remove holiday displays from taxpayer property, but asserted that he had found an answer to his own question: "they wanted to make a political display, they wanted to blend church and state."
In a perfect world, no religious displays would mar public property, Stephens argued. "If we agree that the First Amendment would say separation of church and state, no mixture of religion and government, the menorah, crèche, and Ramadan displays would not be allowed, while a Festivus pole would be."
But the First Amendment does not guarantee freedom from religion, countered Harry Mihet, senior litigation counsel at The Liberty Counsel. "Time and time again, the Supreme Court of the United States has held that the First Amendment does not require hostility to religion, it does not require the government to censor people of faith," Mihet explained. Indeed, "the free speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits government from discriminating against Christian viewpoints for any reason."
The First Amendment prohibits government establishing a state religion, but "allowing people of faith to display holiday décor, in equal terms with non-religious people, in no way offends the constitutional mandate against a state church," Mihet said. He called Stephens' views, along with those of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, "extreme."
"He is not raising this display in order to celebrate a holiday, like the Christians with the Nativity scene or the Jews with the menorah," Mihet explained. "That's what makes his display offensive, and why it should have been rejected, in my view."
Instead of celebrating a holiday, Stephens aims to use his display to saturate public areas with holiday monuments, so the local officials choose to ban all displays, Mihet argued. "They don't have a leg to stand on, in terms of trying to take down the Nativity scene, so what they're trying to do instead is bring forth this cacophony of displays," he said. The displays "have no significance to them whatsoever, other than to be a tool of offending and ridiculing people of good faith."
Olsen, the Florida Prayer Network leader behind the Nativity scene, was unabashed. "I think he wants to laugh at the Nativity and make fun of it by placing his beer can pole there, but it only makes the message of Christ in Christmas shout the true story louder to the nation – Christ is welcome in the state capitol of Florida!"