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Battle Over Coastal Christmas Display Goes to LA Court
November 19, 2012 at 7:29 AM


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.


  • romalove
    November 19, 2012 at 9:23 AM


    Quoting yourspecialkid:


    Quoting romalove:


    Quoting yourspecialkid:


    Quoting romalove:


    Quoting yourspecialkid:

     Ridiculous.  A 60 yr old nativity scene does not establish a religion.  People need to spend a little less time worrying about what OFFENDS them and spend more time on what gives them JOY.


     The problem with this argument is that there has been Christian supermajority in America for so long that all of the "traditional" displays are Christian centric.  They shouldn't have been there in the first place, and now if we sort of "grandfather" them in, we have only Christian iconography in place at governmental public places.  I think this is wrong.

     But, there is no problem.  The Constitution does not give anyone the right to never be offended by something.

    A religious display should be protected under freedom of religion and freedom of speech.  This 60 yr old display has established no churches....they are put up by the people...not by the state....the grounds they are put on belong to the people.

    I do not oppose religious groups using public property to put up holiday displays....not just for Christmas.  People would be a lot happier if they quit worrying so much about what offends them.


     It is protected but on private property, not governmental property, where it can be construed as endorsement of religion.

    The offense isn't to person but to Constitution, IMO.

     Do you really think you only have your Constitutional rights while on private property?  There is no "except".  If you allow people to exercise their freedom of speech...their right to keep and bear arms....ect...on public property you must also allow them to exercise their freedom of religion...even if it is one you do not agree with.

    May I ask what particular religion a nativity scene establishes?  You cannot say Christianity...that is a faith....religion is carried out among the churches....and there are many many of those with widely varying beliefs.

    I am sorry, I have to go now...the office is calling.  I have enjoyed the debate though...I can always count on you to keep it pleasant.  :)

     No point in debating if we can't be civil even on opposite sides of an issue.  :-)

    I think that nativity on public land doesn't establish but it endorses, and that is the Constitutional offense I see.

  • LaughingTattoo
    November 19, 2012 at 9:31 AM

    Im atheist. And I find what these athiest are doing to be....tasteless and childish. I see no problem with christmas displays, traditional or not. But the class-less signs and digs are rediculous. Grow up people, grow the hell up

  • candlegal
    November 19, 2012 at 9:35 AM

    that would be nice but a few just seem to want to ruin it for the majority.

    Quoting UpSheRises:

    I wish people just rolled their eyes when something was annoying instead of making a federal case out of it.

  • romalove
    November 19, 2012 at 9:39 AM


    Quoting LaughingTattoo:

    Im atheist. And I find what these athiest are doing to be....tasteless and childish. I see no problem with christmas displays, traditional or not. But the class-less signs and digs are rediculous. Grow up people, grow the hell up

     I tend not to like the message, but I think that's the point.  They are hoping that all the messages will be thrown out.

  • illegallyblonde
    November 19, 2012 at 9:42 AM
    I love this time of year and holiday displays. Okay folks, if the government is allowing holiday displays, where's how you keep it legal: secularize the display and it will pass the Lynch test.

    Government sponsored Christmas displays will be held constitutional if they are sufficiently secular to avoid the appearance that the government is endorsing a particular religion.
    So how many reindeer and Christmas trees do you need to save the nativity scene from constitutional attack? In Lynch, the Court held that a holiday display will be deemed constitutional if it is secularized by other non religious symbols. In County of Alleghany, the Court found the county's nativity scene unconstitutional because they did not add " other stuff" to the display, which only had religious symbols.

    So, if a city wants a nativity scene they must secularize it and it will pass Lynch and the Lemon test (must not think that the city is endorsing religion). Look around your city and see if your city's displace passes Lunch and Lemon.
  • GoodPenny
    November 19, 2012 at 9:51 AM
    The ethical issue here is that the atheist's display are purposely rude, and insulting. Whereas the 60 year old tradition that the city of Santa Monica displays is not. They are not specifically intending to cause strife by their display, the atheist group is. Intent is the difference between getting probation and 25 years in a court of law, so what does that tell you?
  • Billiejeens
    November 19, 2012 at 10:04 AM

    Quoting romalove:


    Quoting candlegal:

    Oh darn, is it that time of year again already.    Here we go again

     I agree with that sentiment lol.

    But I really am sort of bothered by the idea that the atheist group wants to push these negative messages to "join 'em".  I really think they are doing it to try and get all messages removed from governmental public places, and that, I think, is right.

    Idiotic, of course.

  • LucyMom08
    November 19, 2012 at 10:09 AM
    So all he did was put up his own banner and the city took everything down? Why not include both? What gives the church the right to have theirs, but not the atheist?
  • Bookwormy
    November 19, 2012 at 10:22 AM
    I believe that the Supreme Court made a mistake in allowing public & goverment property to display religious materials as long as they are willing to display a diversity. I believe that to display none is to not establish any religion but to display many is to establish many religions.

    It is usually the Christians I find aruging for the displays & saying that nobody should be offended. I'm not Christian & I'm not offended by them, but I think that they do show that we live in a Christocentric, Christianist country. It makes it hard to raise children non-Christian or enjoy this time of year. I wish there were a stricter interpretation of the 1st Amendment, & then the athiests wouldn't be offending everyone either.

    Quoting romalove:


    Quoting candlegal:

    Oh darn, is it that time of year again already.    Here we go again

     I agree with that sentiment lol.

    But I really am sort of bothered by the idea that the atheist group wants to push these negative messages to "join 'em".  I really think they are doing it to try and get all messages removed from governmental public places, and that, I think, is right.

  • frogbender
    November 19, 2012 at 10:29 AM

    Look, no matter how tacky or tasteless, as long as neither display is lewd or vulgar (we're talking nudity and inappropriate language here), both should have the same rights to be displayed if one of them is allowable. 

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