November 19, 2012

Atheist amused by legal fight over nativity

His anti-God sign led the city of Santa Monica to cancel a holiday tradition, which sparked a lawsuit.

The Associated Press

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.

click image to enlarge

A man walks past two of the traditional nativity scenes at Palisades Park in Santa Monica, Calif., in December 2011. The city eliminated the holiday tradition this year rather than see a repeat of disputes and vandalism related to competing messages of Christians and atheists.

2011 File Photo/The Associated Press

click image to enlarge

Avowed atheist Damon Vix stands in front of the display he set among other, traditional holiday displays in Palisades Park in Santa Monica, Calif., last year. Vix last year won two-thirds of the booths in the annual, city-sponsored lottery to divvy up spaces in the life-sized display. But he put up only one thing: A sign that read "Religions are all alike – founded on fables and mythologies."

2011 File Photo/The Associated Press

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.

ATHEISTS’ TACTICAL SHIFT

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.

Earlier this year, national atheist groups took out full-page newspaper ads and hundreds of TV spots in response to the Catholic bishops’ activism on women’s health care issues, and are gearing up to battle for their own space alongside public Christmas displays in 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 creche.

TONGUE-IN-CHEEK DISPLAYS

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 an 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. 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.”

BAN SAVES CITY TIME, MONEY

The city doesn’t bar 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, 44, is surprised at – and slightly amused by – 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 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.”

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