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Atheist Banner Joins Religious Displays At Fla. Capitol

Religious displays at the Florida Capitol this this month are being touted as expressions of the religious freedom guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. But the displays are inviting debate over how separate is separate enough when it comes to church and state.  

The Florida Nativity Scene Committee’s Pam Olsen led the group’s Christmas celebration during the first week of December.

She said, “We get to celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ, the babe in the manger, and that’s what it’s all about today.”

Local school children sang several Christmas carols.

And Bishop Joe Brown of University Ministries prayed, “We ask you to establish an altar in this place from which we will orchestrate your will in earth in this nation and this state.”

But the place Brown was standing wasn’t a church or private place of worship. It’s the Florida state Capitol rotunda, where Olsen’s group used private donations to put up a nativity scene for the month of December. It’s sponsored by the Thomas More Society, a conservative Chicago law firm that’s behind a similar display in the Illinois Capitol. Olsen headed up the Florida effort with some funding from the Hobby Lobby company.

“And yes we can do that at the heart of our state government,” she says.

She says the display doesn’t violate the U.S. constitutional provision prohibiting government sponsorship of religion because the state designated the rotunda a public forum allowing private groups to put up their own messages.

“Isn’t this what the First Amendment is all about, freedom of religion?” she asks. “And you know what? Religious freedom is under attack in America.”

Olsen says she feels oppressed, insisting she’s pressured to say, “Happy holidays” instead of, “Merry Christmas," for example. But Florida American Civil Liberties Union Director Howard Simon says the same First Amendment Olsen touts also guarantees that others can’t infringe on her religion.

“Religion is nowhere in the world more protected than in the United States because of separation of church and state, because our government is told to stay out of the business of religion,” he says.

He says the Supreme Court interprets the U.S. Constitution to mean government can’t even display religious symbols. But what a “religious symbol” is can be tricky to define. Just take the Chanukkah menorah also on display at the state Capitol. Rabbi Schneur Oirechman is rector at Chabad Lubavitch of the Panhandle, the group behind the Capitol menorah. He points to a Supreme Court ruling that said a nativity scene sponsored by the city of Pittsburgh was unconstitutional but the city’s menorah was ok because it was also a cultural symbol.

“The menorah sends with it a universal message of freedom of religion for all, freedom of expression, freedom from tyranny and oppression. It’s not only a religious message, per se,” he says.

But Oirechman also says there’s an attack underway – on God.

Stetson University Associate Professor of religious studies Greg Sapp says, “It’s certainly possible for people to feel persecuted when they feel that they’re not able to express their religious views or positions publicly or as they once did before.”

But he goes on to add, “I think it’s more a matter of making room for people who are non-religious, and that requires us to respect their positions on them whether they like it or not.”

Freedom from Religion Foundation lawyer Andrew Seidel agrees. His Wisconsin-based group put up a banner in the Florida Capitol celebrating the winter solstice in response to the menorah and nativity.

“When a religious group seeks to co-opt the power and prestige of the government, the best way to dilute that co-opting of the power and prestige is to put up our own message,” he says.

Seidel says a South Florida man also has applied for a permit to honor a holiday created by the TV show “Seinfeld”: he’d like to add a Festivus pole made of beer cans to the rotunda. And as is tradition for Festivus, the airing of grievances has already begun.