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Battle Over Coastal Christmas Display Goes to LA Court

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LOS ANGELES - Damon Vix didn't have to go to court to push Christmas out of the city of Santa Monica. He just joined the festivities.

The atheist's anti-God message alongside a life-sized nativity display in a park overlooking the beach ignited a debate that burned brighter than any Christmas candle.

Santa Monica officials snuffed the city's holiday tradition this year rather than referee the religious rumble, prompting churches that have set up a 14-scene Christian diorama for decades to sue over freedom of speech violations. Their attorney will ask a federal judge Monday to resurrect the depiction of Jesus' birth, while the city aims to eject the case.

"It's a sad, sad commentary on the attitudes of the day that a nearly 60-year-old Christmas tradition is now having to hunt for a home, something like our savior had to hunt for a place to be born because the world was not interested," said Hunter Jameson, head of the nonprofit Santa Monica Nativity Scene Committee that is suing.

Missing from the courtroom drama will be Vix and his fellow atheists, who are not parties to the case. Their role outside court highlights a tactical shift as atheists evolve into a vocal minority eager to get their non-beliefs into the public square as never before.

National atheist groups earlier this year took out full-page newspaper ads and hundreds of TV spots in response to the Catholic bishops' activism around women's health care issues and are gearing up to battle for their own space alongside public Christmas displays in small towns across America this season.

"In recent years, the tactic of many in the atheist community has been, if you can't beat them, join them," said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and director of the Newseum's Religious Freedom Education Project in Washington. "If these church groups insist that these public spaces are going to be dominated by a Christian message, we'll just get in the game - and that changes everything."

In the past, atheists primarily fought to uphold the separation of church and state through the courts. The change underscores the conviction held by many nonbelievers that their views are gaining a foothold, especially among young adults.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a study last month that found 20 percent of Americans say they have no religious affiliation, an increase from 15 percent in the last five years. Atheists took heart from the report, although Pew researchers stressed that the category also encompassed majorities of people who said they believed in God but had no ties with organized religion and people who consider themselves "spiritual" but not "religious."

"We're at the bottom of the totem pole socially, but we have muscle and we're flexing it," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation. "Ignore our numbers at your peril."

The trouble in Santa Monica began three years ago, when Vix applied for and was granted a booth in Palisades Park alongside the story of Jesus Christ's birth, from Mary's visit from the Angel Gabriel to the traditional crèche.

Vix hung a simple sign that quoted Thomas Jefferson: "Religions are all alike -- founded on fables and mythologies." The other side read "Happy Solstice." He repeated the display the following year but then upped the stakes significantly.

In 2011, Vix recruited 10 others to inundate the city with applications for tongue-in-cheek displays such as a homage to the "Pastafarian religion," which would include an artistic representation of the great Flying Spaghetti Monster.

The secular coalition won 18 of 21 spaces. The two others went to the traditional Christmas displays and one to a Hanukkah display.

The atheists used half their spaces, displaying signs such as one that showed pictures of Poseidon, Jesus, Santa Claus and the devil and said: "37 million Americans know myths when they see them. What myths do you see?"

Most of the signs were vandalized and in the ensuing uproar, the city effectively ended a tradition that began in 1953 and earned Santa Monica one of its nicknames, the City of the Christmas Story.

The Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee argues in its lawsuit that atheists have the right to protest, but that freedom doesn't trump the Christians' right to free speech.

"If they want to hold an opposing viewpoint about the celebration of Christmas, they're free to do that - but they can't interfere with our right to engage in religious speech in a traditional public forum," said William Becker, attorney for the committee. "Our goal is to preserve the tradition in Santa Monica and to keep Christmas alive."

The city doesn't prohibit churches from caroling in the park, handing out literature or even staging a play about the birth of Jesus and churches can always set up a nativity on private land, Deputy City Attorney Jeanette Schachtner said in an email.

The decision to ban the displays also saves the city, which had administered the cumbersome lottery process used to award booths, both time and money while preserving the park's aesthetics, she said.

For his part, Vix is surprised - and slightly amused - at the legal battle spawned by his solitary act but doesn't plan anything further.

"That was such a unique and blatant example of the violation of the First Amendment that I felt I had to act," said the 44-year-old set builder. "If I had another goal, it would be to remove the `under God' phrase from the Pledge of Allegiance - but that's a little too big for me to take on for right now."

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and religion, but also states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." That has been interpreted by courts as providing for separation of church and state, barring government bodies from promoting, endorsing or funding religion or religious institutions.

by on Nov. 19, 2012 at 7:29 AM
Replies (431-432):
by Member on Nov. 25, 2012 at 9:28 PM

Quoting Lacey14:

How are these atheist who are trying to dispel Christianity, showing acceptance and tolerance?  Since they are not celebrating the birth of Christ, why are they putting up banners at this time?

Quoting witchybabymomma:

I am really kind of on the fence on this issue. There is supposed to be a seperation of church and state, but at the same time I don't believe most holiday displays cause any harm to anyone, but at the same time if a city wants to allow those displays on public property then they need to allow them for ALL religious groups, not just the ones they like or "accept". We ALL have the same rights whether we follow the same religion or not. I don't have a problem with any of the christmas diplays in my town, but I would love to see displays for other religions right along side of them, I think people would be a lot better off teaching their children acceptance and tolerance of others as opposed to they believe different then we do so our rights are more important.

Well first I don't think they are necessarily practicing acceptance or tolerance themselves, but they should as well as the christians involved in the dispute however Christmas is not the only holiday celebrated at this time of year so I really would not think it a reasonable request to ask someone who wanted to display a different type of religious display to do it at another time since they could be celebrating the same time as those  celebrating christmas. I think they may have went overboard to the point of being offensive the third year with some of the displays the article mentioned, but at the same time it is their right to express their opinion the same as the people with the christmas displays. Also another reason for not putting up the displays at another time of year is the fact that the city may not offer the space at other times of the year for various reasons.

In any case whether people like or agree with the displays if your going to allow one you should allow all regardless of what religion or lack of religion they represent and as happened in this case if people cannot respect all of the displays and choose to vandalize those they don't agree with then I feel the city was right to decide on no displays at all.

by Ruby Member on Nov. 26, 2012 at 3:34 PM


Quoting GoodPenny:

 Or how about this....this is simple, if the atheists in this area want  the freedom to put up their negative banner and call Christians liars, maybe they should not place it right next to a nativity scene to intentionally cause strife and contention during a season that is supposed to bring joy and happiness to others?
Wouldn't it be easier for religous groups to stop pushing the envelope about putting displays on public property, keep them on private property, and avoid the whole issue?  It's not as if there aren't plenty of private places that would glady have a religious display.
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