A display from The Satanic Temple-Chicago has been placed in the Statehouse rotunda, joining the Nativity scene to mark the Christmas season and the Menorah to mark Hanukkah.

According to the Satanic group’s application to the secretary of state’s office to allow the display, the sculpture is called “Knowledge is the Greatest Gift,” and it depicts the forearm of a young woman extended, with a snake coiled around the arm, and the hand holding an apple.

The whole structure, including the base, is about 4 1/2 feet tall, and the arm and apple statue is about 18 inches long.

Lex Manticore of Chicago, a leader and spokesman for the group, said the arm represents that of Eve in the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge.

"We see Satan as a hero in that story, of course, spreading knowledge," Manticore said.

He called the pursuit of knowledge "the greatest individual pursuit of bettering yourself, and we believe that you should basically act with the best scientific understanding of the world when you make decisions."

He also said the 150-member group centered in Chicago, with members in places including nearby states, Springfield and Peoria, doesn't believe in "anything supernatural."

"So that's no deities," Manticore said. "Not only do we not worship a literal Satan, but we don't believe one actually exists. Satan for us is a metaphor. ... Throughout literary history, (it's) been used as a character that represents rebellion in the face of religious tyranny."

Dave Druker, spokesman for the secretary of state, said the Chicago-based Satanic group had the right, just like religious organizations, to put up its display in the rotunda.

“Under the Constitution, the First Amendment, people have a right to express their feelings, their thoughts,” Druker said. “This recognizes that.”

The state cannot legally censor the content of displays, as long as they are not paid for by taxpayer dollars, because the Capitol rotunda is considered a public place. A large sign near the displays explains the Supreme Court ruling regarding displays.

According to the group's application, it is “a non-theistic organization, the mission of which is to encourage benevolence and empathy among all people, reject tyrannical authority, advocate practical common sense and justice, and be directed by the human conscience to undertake noble pursuits guided by the individual will.”

A website for The Satanic Temple says of the group’s mission that, “Politically aware, civic-minded Satanists and allies in The Satanic Temple have publicly opposed The Westboro Baptist Church, advocated on behalf of children in public school to abolish corporal punishment, applied for equal representation where religious monuments are placed on public property, provided religious exemption and legal protection against laws that unscientifically restrict women’s reproductive autonomy … and applied to hold clubs alongside other religious after-school clubs in schools besieged by proselytizing organizations.”

Westboro is a small Kansas church whose members took to the streets to advocate against gay people and other groups. According to The Associated Press, Westboro’s founder, Fred Phelps, who died in 2014, led church members to thank God for roadside explosive devices and prayed for thousands more casualties, calling the deaths of military personnel killed in the Middle East a divine punishment for a nation it believed was doomed by tolerance for gay people.

A Dec. 3 story on Vice news characterized The Satanic Temple in Salem, Massachusetts, as “not a group of devil worshipers, but liberal political activists who oppose the increasing influence of the religious right in American politics.”

Lucien Greaves, co-founder of the group based in Salem, said in that Vice report that, “We are on the front lines in the war against encroaching theocracy.”

The Salem group this summer held a First Amendment rally outside the Arkansas Statehouse, where a Ten Commandments monument had been erected. The Salem group brought a statue of Baphomet, a winged man with the head of a goat. The logo of the Chicago group – on the base of the arm statute at the Illinois Statehouse – includes a depiction of Baphomet within a five-pointed star.

Manticore, of the Chicago-based organization that has been an official chapter of the national group for nearly a year, agreed that the display in the Illinois Statehouse can be provocative.

"I think that all art is about provocation," he said. "It's about inspiring thought and emotion. ... Certainly, we can't control whether someone finds something offensive or not."

He also said the idea was not to "replace or push out any other religious organization. We believe in religious plurality, and we just want equal representation. ... It's our constitutional right to do so, so we're just executing that right."

Also displayed in the Illinois Statehouse rotunda, as it has been for several years, is a statement from the Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. The statement marks the winter solstice. The sign asks that "reason prevail," and also states in part that "Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

Back in 2008, a Springfield resident at the time also got permission to install an aluminum Festivus pole in the rotunda. That was partly for fun and partly to send a message that the Statehouse wasn't the place for religious displays. Festivus, an alternative to the commercialism of Christmas, became famous in a 1997 episode of the TV comedy "Seinfeld." No Festivus pole has been in the rotunda in recent years. 

Contact Bernard Schoenburg: bernard.schoenburg@sj-r.com, 788-1540, twitter.com/bschoenburg.