For 60 years, religious groups in Santa Monica, Calif., have put on displays which depict the full story of the birth of Christ, as well as the story of Hanukkah.
City officials ended the tradition after an uproar because signs from atheist groups, which had been approved by the city to participate in the traditional holiday display at the park, were vandalized, reported NBC
The Santa Monica Nativity Scene Committee is suing the city to allow the display to continue, said William Becker, the group’s attorney. Not allowing the tradition to continue is a violation of the First Amendment, the group claims.
"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 Becker. "Our goal is to preserve the tradition in Santa Monica and to keep Christmas alive."
Although groups have not been banned from caroling, staging plays that tell the Christmas story, or handing out literature, staying out of the fracas is its main goal — and handing out permits for any group to display signs or scenes puts them squarely in the middle of it.
The city is looking to avoid a religious fight which has been building over the last few years as atheist activist Damon Vix has motivated others to apply for display spaces in the park as a way to spread a non-religious message among the Judeo-Christian ones.
"That was such a unique and blatant example of the violation of the First Amendment that I felt I had to act," said Vix, a set builder, about the in-depth dioramas of the story of Jesus Christ’s birth.
In 2009, Vix applied for and was given a permit to hang a sign near the Christ display, which on one side included a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “Religions are all the same - founded on fables and mythologies,” and on the other side wished passers-by a “Happy Solstice.”
Two years later, Vix motivated other atheists to apply for display spaces in the park using various other “fake” deities, such as the Flying Spaghetti Monster of Pastafarianism.
The city granted 18 permits, half of which were used by the atheists, including Vix’s, who put up a sign that said, “37 million Americans know myths when they see them. What myths do you see?" The sentence was printed above pictures of Poseidon, Jesus Christ, Santa Claus, and Satan.
When many of the atheist signs were vandalized during the holiday season, the city decided to end the tradition, which dates back to 1953, in order to keep the peace between religious and non-religious activists.
"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.
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