‘Twas 2015 and all through the House, conservatives were stirring and starting to grouse.
Forms had been filed, a request from some soul, that the Capitol host a gay-pride Festivus pole.
“It’s a joke! It’s offensive!” some Republicans cried, “There’s a war on Christmas, and you’re on the wrong side!”
After grievances were aired and the First Amendment won, a pole never appeared, but the following emails sure are fun.
Today is Festivus. It’s for “the rest of us,” and in 2015 an LGBT-advocate from Florida named Timothy “Chaz” Stevens filed an application with the state Office of Management and Enterprise Services to display a “Festivus pole” in the Oklahoma State Capitol.
A creation of the sitcom Seinfeld, Festivus has a cult following for its absurd traditions: An aluminum Festivus pole, the conventional “airing of grievances” and the annual “feats of strength” that famously pitted George Costanza against his father in a wrestling match.
But in 2015, Chaz Stevens’ application to post a Festivus pole at the Oklahoma Capitol caused a great deal of consternation from conservative lawmakers and a segment of the public still angered by an Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling that removed a Ten Commandments statue from state property.
Now, thanks to an open records request for every Office of Management and Enterprise Services email containing the word “Festivus” sent or received in 2015, NonDoc is pleased to present the behind-the-scenes story of state employees supporting the First Amendment, navigating icy political waters and enduring the grievances of outraged legislators.
Dec. 10: ‘Near vicinity of the nativity display’
On Dec. 10, 2015, Chaz Stevens sent OMES an emailing checking on his application to install a Festivus pole. He described his intentions: (sic)
We wish to install a Festivus Pole, approximately 6 feet tall with a disco ball. There are no moving parts, nor is powered required. We wish to install this pole in the very near vicinity of the nativity display that has been erected on state capitol grounds. If possible, we’d like our Festivus Pole to be erected on Dec. 21, 2015, and removed Dec. 28, 2015. I have included a picture of the pole, which we erected in Delray Beach, FL.
Dec. 16: ‘They’ve been most accommodating’
On Dec. 16, 2015, news reports broke that Stevens’ plan to display the Festivus pole — decorated in gay-pride rainbow colors — had been approved by OMES. In an email to OMES officials, Stevens praised the professionalism of Oklahoma state employees.
“Thank you and your staff, as they’ve been most accommodating,” Stevens wrote.
Dec. 17: ‘Airing their grievances’
The next day, Gov. Mary Fallin’s communications director, Michael McNutt, emailed then-OMES public affairs director John Estus.
“We’ve gotten several calls from people about the Festivus pole being put up next week at the Capitol,” McNutt wrote Dec. 17. “Some people are asking what criteria was used to allow it being placed in the Capitol. Did the Division of Capital Assets Management give the approval? Is there someone they can direct callers to if they have questions? Thanks.”
An hour earlier, Rep. Lewis Moore (R-Arcadia) had filed an OMES “service request” ticket, apparently thinking that the Festivus pole had already been displayed.
“I am needing to report a questionable display in the capitol rotunda that needs to be taken down immediately,” Moore wrote.
OMES staff conducted a walk-through of the rotunda and, seeing nothing questionable, determined Moore was referencing the scheduled Festivus installation.
That afternoon, Moore, Rep. Bobby Cleveland (R-Slaughterville), Rep. John Bennett (R-Sallisaw) and then-Rep. David Brumbaugh (R-Broken Arrow) jointly issued a press release criticizing the Festivus pole and OMES staff. It noted that lawmakers were “airing their grievances” and referenced the traditional “very high strength to weight ratio” of any good Festivus pole.
“While a lot of us may have liked the Seinfeld series, this effort to mock the celebration of the birth of Jesus, our Lord and Savior, does not illustrate the best judgment of those who manage our state Capitol,” Moore said in the press release. “To Christians, the rainbow is God’s promise not to destroy the earth again by flood, as found in Genesis 9:12-17. This sacrilegious symbol wrapped in the gay rights flag, is not respectful of God or the many visitors, including children, who arrive by the school-bus load during this time of year to celebrate the peace and joy and remembrance of the sacrifice of Christ for our sins.”
Bennett called for removal of the pole — not yet displayed — and said “this gay pride symbol should not be allowed to stand.”
“Americans are experiencing an increase in hostility and intolerance toward our Christian beliefs,” wrote Bennett, an avowed anti-Islam crusader. “If Christians put up something antithetical to Islam, atheism, etc., during one of their most holy days, we would be attacked by the other group and there would be a demand to stop.”
Brumbaugh further implied that Christianity was under attack.
“This is just another example of the continued war on Christmas,” the now-deceased Brumbaugh said in the release. “The people who approved this should have exercised better judgment.”
Cleveland said he supported free speech but still opposed the Festivus pole.
“After we have taken down the Ten Commandments monument from the Capitol grounds, I am certainly not endorsing the replacement with secular humanists to come and shove it in the face of Oklahomans,” Cleveland said.
Less than an hour after the press release was issued, OMES Capital Assets Administrator Dan Ross forwarded it to Estus.
“Airing their grievances,” Ross said. “Well played.”
Dec. 18: ‘This says nothing about LGBT’
On Dec. 18, Sen. Josh Brecheen (R-Coalgate) emailed Dana Webb of OMES.
“Do you have a copy of the original application as compared to what is now being proposed for the display,” Brecheen wrote. “I have been informed that application wasn’t forthright.”
Later that day, Ross replied to an email from Cleveland answering roughly the same question Brecheen had asked.
“Representative Cleveland, attached you will find the application submitted by The Z Production Group, Inc.,” Ross wrote. “This is a digital copy, an original hard copy with the applicants signature is on file as well.”
Cleveland replied tersely four minutes later: “This says nothing about LGBT.”
Ross sent the same application to a dozen other parties, including Fallin’s then-general counsel, Steve Mullins. OMES deputy general counsel Kimberlee Williams also sent lawmakers an email describing the agency’s decision to approve the pole:
The public areas of the State Capitol have traditionally been treated as a ‘public forum’ in that members of the public may apply to use public areas for demonstrations, exhibits, and the like. OMES reviews the applications and occasionally disapproves applications for reasons such as scheduling conflicts or potential for damage to the building. However, the First and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit us from disapproving an application based on the content of the applicant’s message.
We were assured that the “legs” on the wooden stand are approximately two feet long and have casters and pads, which means the pole is free-standing and unlikely to scuff the floors of the Capitol. Finding no legal basis upon which to deny the application, it was approved.
‘I’m a widow and a single mom and desperately need this job’
At 3:19 a.m Dec. 18, Cleveland replied to Williams’ explanation of how the Festivus pole received approval.
“Would you please send me a copy of all the paper work that the state required the festivus person to complete.”
At 1:40 p.m., Cleveland wrote Williams again.
“Very poor judgement has been used in this particular situation!” Cleveland said. “We need people that have some common sense.”
Williams appeared to take Cleveland’s comment as a threat.
“I may be misinterpreting your message below, but it puts me in fear of losing my job,” Williams wrote. “I’m a widow and a single mom and desperately need this job. Besides that, I love my job and consider it an honor to serve the people of this great state.”
Cleveland responded: “It should be public record. I don’t want to put your job in jeopardy.”
Dec. 19: ‘If the disco ball turns, it will be battery powered’
By Saturday, Dec. 19, state employees were still addressing the Festivus kerfuffle.
“It’s a six foot aluminum pole with a wood base,” Ross wrote to Webb in an effort to answer Brecheen’s ongoing questions about the pole. “We were told that it would not require electricity so if it has any lights or if the disco ball turns, it will be battery powered.”
Dec. 22: ‘The Capitol also has a 30-foot Christmas tree’
As Festivus approached, emails show lawmakers continued to pepper state staff with questions about and arguments against Stevens’ display. Members of the public were also sending letters, and media had reached out to OMES.
Estus, the agency’s press contact at the time, emailed his colleague, Michael Baker, on Dec. 22 with a prepared statement for media inquiries.
“If anyone asks, you can give them this, the legal analysis by Kimberlee and the application,” Estus wrote before saying the quote could be attributed to himself:
It is allowed under both state law and agency rule. If someone wanted to reserve space to set up a Nativity scene for a day, they could do that, too. It’s worth noting the Capitol also has a 30-foot Christmas tree on the south steps, dozens of Christmas trees in the halls and Santa’s sleigh in the first floor rotunda.
The pole, as described by Stevens, also brought criticism from a Festivus traditionalist named Bill Millar who wrote:
Festivus is non political. Draping a flag or symbol of any kind on the pole does not follow the true tradition of Festivus. It is a blatant case of hijacking a marvelous festival that is both anti commercialism and inclusive “to the rest of us.” A disco ball on top would be most distracting, much like tinsel. Allowing a flag adorned pole with a message to be erected in your Capitol building, is unacceptable and a total sham.
A simple 6′ unpolished aluminum pole in a corner would be inclusive. And I bet would not offend any of your visitors.
‘We are supposed to be on the same team’
Three minutes after 5 p.m. on Dec. 22, Moore sent a letter to Mullins, OMES director Preston Doerflinger and Denise Northrup, who was Fallin’s chief of staff at the time.
Signed by Moore, Cleveland, Bennett, then-Rep. Sally Kern (R-OKC), Rep. Jon Echols (R-OKC) and Rep. Charles McCall (R-Atoka), the three-page letter was addressed to “Governor Fallin and Secretary Doerflinger,” and it opened by claiming to contain “sufficient reasons to reject this application with legal precedent as we will present.”
The letter’s fourth paragraph asked a series of hypothetical questions:
What are the standards Oklahoma has for private displays? Can anyone put literally anything on display on the first floor that the executive branch will disallow? The promotion of Westboro Baptist Church personal attacks, Nazi, communist, racist, blasphemy, KKK, sexual or deviant behavior of any sort? Today the answer is yes. Some would argue there are more important issues to deal with today. We are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade the preservation of our symbol of state pride and yet we allow the desecration of our capitol and attack on the moral underpinnings of our culture.
Moore listed now-Speaker Charles McCall’s title twice and also included a typo in Doerflinger’s email address, meaning he ultimately had to re-send the letter at 9 p.m.
Dec. 23: Festivus arrives without a pole
On Dec. 23 — the actual day of Festivus observance — no pole had arrived for installation at the Capitol. OMES staff were waiting to hear from Stevens but never did.
By mid-morning, a press release featuring Fallin’s Christmas statement was issued:
The holiday season is a special and wonderful time of year. As we take time to celebrate with our families and friends this year, I hope we also will reflect upon the true meaning of Christmas and the message of hope and love it carries for us all.
OMES eGovernment director Douglas Doe forwarded Fallin’s quote to coworkers.
“What, no Happy Festivus?” he quipped.
(Update: This story was updated at 8:26 a.m., Saturday, Dec. 23, to add reference to the Festivus pole’s “strength to weight ratio” and correct an error after Dan Ross aired a grievance about his title. It was also updated at 2 p.m. to correct a typo.)