TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida's Capitol has displayed a Pabst Blue Ribbon Festivus pole, atheist banners and even a tribute to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But a display showing an angel falling into flames with the message "Happy Holidays from the Satanic Temple" was too much for one woman.
Susan Hemeryck, 54, tried removing the display Tuesday, and when the Capitol Police told her she couldn't, she began ripping it apart. She was arrested and charged with criminal mischief. The display had been erected as a satire by an atheist group calling itself the Satanic Temple, with the intent of countering a nativity scene.
The nativity scene had been taken down this week.
"It's just wrong, when you remove baby Jesus two days before Christmas and put Satan in his place - that just can't happen. I couldn't allow it to happen," said Hemeryck, who said she was wearing a shirt that said "Catholic Warrior" when she arrived at the Capitol. "I was there at the right time and the right moment and I needed to take a stand against Satan."
Atheist groups last year began taking advantage of the Capitol's free speech zone after a Christian group installed a manger scene showing the birth of Jesus. The display last year included a Festivus pole in tribute to a holiday created on "Seinfeld" that satirizes the commercialism of Christmas and a display by the Church of The Flying Spaghetti Monster, which mocks beliefs that a god created the universe and argues instead that the universe was created by a plate of pasta and meatballs.
The Satanic Temple display was rejected as "grossly offensive" last year, but this year - following threats of legal action from the Americans United for Separation of Church and State - the state Department of Management Services gave its approval.
"The angel's dead," said John Porgal, regional director of American Atheists, when he arrived at the Capitol to see the angel figurine lying alone on a table. "We've been tolerant of their display. We didn't like it, but we tolerated it. You see what they did to our display."
The Satanic Temple is a satirical group created by the atheists, that opposes religious displays and activity on government property and public schools. The same group asked to distribute Satanic coloring books in Orlando high schools after a Christian group was allowed to distribute Bibles. The school district is now reconsidering its policy.
Porgal said he plans to leave the display in its damaged state "as a sign of what the religious right's idea of tolerance is."
Pam Olsen, who organized the manger display, said she doesn't approve of the attack.
"I'm actually very sad that she felt motivated to do that," Olsen said. "I do not like the display. I think it's rude and it's sad that he put it up to protest the nativity that means so much to millions of people, however I don't think anyone should ever vandalize anything. Free speech is free speech whether we like it or not."
Hemeryck said she has no criminal record and hasn't even had a speeding ticket in more than 15 years. And she had only one regret about Tuesday's incident.
"I just yanked that little devil off the fishing line," she said. "I should have just done a better job and finished it off for good."
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