A nearly 60-year tradition has been canceled in Santa Monica, Calif., after city officials decided against a repeat of last year's battle between local atheists and Christians over the annual Christmas Nativity display.
Since 1953, local churches and civic groups have been placing nativity scenes along Santa Monica’s Ocean Avenue during the holiday season. Last year, Burbank prop maker and atheist Damon Vix, 43, decided to challenge the display. But instead of taking the nornal anti-Nativity route through the courts, he decided to undermine the exhibit by joining it and heralding an alternate message.
After reaching out to other area atheists, Vix was able to send the city enough applications to secure 18 of the 21 spaces annually allotted to the nativity display via lottery. Two of the remaining booths went to a Christian and the other to a Jewish applicant.
The result was a 2011 exhibit heavy on displays suggesting that Christianity is a myth. Examples included posters containing images of Jesus, Santa Claus, Satan and Poseidon asking viewers, “What myths do you see?” Another proclaimed, “Happy Solstice,” a pagan winter and summer festivity, and featured a famous quote from Thomas Jefferson: “Religions are all alike — founded on fables and mythologies.”
Several of the atheist displays ended up being vanadalized.
The city’s decision to cancel this year's display has disheartened many and sparked some outrage.
“A small group of out-of-town atheists is trying to hijack Santa Monica's nearly 60-year-long Christmas tradition,” said Hunter Jameson, 65, in the LA Times. “Their goal is getting rid of us, and squelching our 1st Amendment rights.”
On Monday, the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, which Jameson chairs, filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to resurrect the Nativity scene, arguing that atheists' right to protest doesn’t supersede 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 ... Our goal is to preserve the tradition in Santa Monica and to keep Christmas alive,” said attorney William Becker, who is representing the Nativity Scenes Committee in the case.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the secular organization Freedom From Religion Foundation, responded by describing the Nativity display as a “territorial attempt by Christians to impose their beliefs in this season.”
“It's littering — literally, littering — these spaces,” Gaylor said, adding, “Christians are the insiders, and everyone else is an outsider.”
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