TALLAHASSEE (The News Service of Florida) — A nearly 6-foot-tall pole made from emptied beer cans, marking a parody holiday, will be put up in the Florida Capitol this week as a not-so-subtle protest to the recent placement of a Christian nativity scene.
The homemade Festivus pole will be erected most likely on Wednesday in the same first-floor rotunda as a nativity scene depicting the birth of Jesus Christ that was put up last week by the Florida Prayer Network.
“I still chuckle, I literally can’t believe there will be a pile of Pabst Blue Ribbon cans in the state rotunda,” said Chaz Stevens, a Deerfield Beach resident who applied to the state Department of Management Services to put the Festivus pole on display.
Stevens, who operates a blog that focuses on South Florida politics, said the intent of the Festivus pole is to make a political statement on the need for the separation of church and state.
He compared the Festivus pole to the nativity scene as “my ridiculous statement versus what I consider, as an atheist, as their ridiculous statement.”
Festivus is a "holiday" created for the TV sitcom "Seinfeld" as a non-commercial festival "for the rest of us" in the Christmas and year-end holiday season. Festivus, celebrated Dec. 23, comes with a ceremonial post-dinner "airing of the grievances" in which participants describe how they have been disappointed by others in the past year and engage in "feats of strength."
Festivus purists may favor a more-simple unadorned aluminum pole, but Stevens said the use of beer cans --- he wouldn't say who emptied the cans --- is in line with the irreverent spirit of those who celebrate the holiday.
Late last week, the Madison, Wisc.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which advocates for non-theists and promotes the separation of church and state, also set up a "Bill of Rights nativity" banner in the rotunda. The foundation's banner states: "At this season of the Winter Solstice, we celebrate the Birth of the Unconquered Sun --- the TRUE reason for the season."
Pam Olsen, president of the Florida Prayer Network, said last week that such displays only "shine more light" on her group’s message that she said isn’t to be viewed as a state-sponsorship of religion.
"It’s their right, they have a right to exercise freedom of speech, that’s what America is about," Olsen said. "It doesn’t faze me, it doesn’t faze the God I serve."
Olsen said of the banner "the foundation celebrates the birth of the unconquered sun, but I know the creator of the son.”
Stevens, a proud card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union, requested the Festivus display space from the state Department of Management Services after reading about the nativity display. A preliminary approval was given Friday with the formal approval made Monday.
Ben Wolf, a spokesman for the Department of Management Services, said as long as there is space available, and the proposed display meets state guidelines, it would likely get approval.
"As long as it meets those guidelines and there is space available in the capitol, DMS is happy to allow all cultures, and denominations, and committees and groups to put up their holiday displays," Wolf said.
The department does limit the height of displays based on where they are located in the rotunda, and prohibits displays from blocking permanent memorials such as the Civil Rights and Veterans halls of fame. There are rules against noise and impeding official business.
Stevens got Deerfield Beach to put up a similar, but taller pole last year after a local group put up a nativity scene outside a city fire house.
In October, Deerfield Beach officials decided to ban all holiday displays on city-owned land that aren't put up by the local government.
"If you follow this and really are into this separation of church and state, holiday display thing, it’s a battle that’s fought all across America," Stevens said. "It’s not as simple as yes or no. It’s really a local issue."
The Festivus pole is expected to go up Wednesday, a day after Gov. Rick Scott and the members of the Florida Cabinet hold a tree-lighting ceremony to mark the arrival of Florida-grown Christmas trees outside their first floor offices.
The Florida Prayer Network’s nativity is to remain in place until Dec. 27.
Another nativity scene, by a group called Reclaim Christmas for Christ, is planned to be on display from Dec. 27 to Jan. 6 for Three Kings Day.
Monday was the scheduled last day for a menorah display by the Chabad Lubavitch of the Panhandle-Tallahassee. Stevens’ pole will go up where the menorah has been located.
Both the Festivus pole and the Freedom From Religion Foundation's banner are permitted to remain in place until Jan. 3.
Stevens said the problem with allowing one group to use public space to express its beliefs is that when one is allowed there will be more from even more-diverse groups.
“I’ve got kind a bizarre mind at times, but I’m sure that somebody’s not going to show the restraint that I have,” Stevens said.
Wolf said Monday morning the department had not received any other applications for holiday displays in the rotunda.
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