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

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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

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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 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 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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