Atheist Action Halts Calif. Nativity Display; Churches Go to Court

Churches are going to federal court to reclaim their freedom of speech after the city of Santa Monica, Calif., decided to end a nearly 60-year tradition of having Christian displays of the nativity in a public park due to an uproar caused by atheists' anti-God signs.

"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," The Associated Press quoted Hunter Jameson, head of the nonprofit Santa Monica Nativity Scene Committee, as saying.

The committee, comprising churches that are behind the nativity display, is suing in federal court, claiming the city violated their freedom of speech by stopping the holiday tradition. A court hearing is scheduled for Monday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

Behind the trouble in Santa Monica is a member of the American Atheists, Damon Vix, who applied for and was granted a booth in Palisades Park alongside the nativity display three years ago. He erected a sign quoting Thomas Jefferson: "Religions are all alike -- founded on fables and mythologies." Another sign read, "Happy Solstice."

Last Christmas season, there were 13 individuals that entered the race for the 21 spaces available at the park rather than the usual three. The sudden high demand for spots, especially by atheists recruited by Vix, prompted Santa Monica's City Hall to implement a random lottery system to determine who would have access to the spots. This left the Nativity Committee with only two spaces on which they were able to put up only three of the usual 14 scenes.

The atheists used half their spaces, displaying anti-God signs, most of which were vandalized. This led the city to effectively end the tradition that began in 1953.

However, the Nativity Committee says in its lawsuit that atheists' right to protest must not 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," committee's attorney William Becker was quoted as saying. "Our goal is to preserve the tradition in Santa Monica and to keep Christmas alive."

Deputy City Attorney Jeanette Schachtner, on the other hand, maintains that the city hasn't banned churches from caroling in the park, handing out literature or staging a nativity play, and churches could set up a nativity on private land. The ban on the displays saves the city time and money while preserving the park's aesthetics, she adds.

The atheists' move in Santa Monica marks a shift in their strategy. "In recent years, the tactic of many in the atheist community has been, if you can't beat them, join them," Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and director of the Newseum's Religious Freedom Education Project in Washington, stated. "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."

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