SANTA MONICA, Calif. – Organizers of Santa Monica’s well known Christmas Nativity scene at Palisades Park are accusing atheists of “hijacking” the tradition.

Atheist groups objected to use of the park by churches to espouse a religious message and applied to the city for their own spaces.

Officials used a lottery to dole out spots in the prime location along Ocean Avenue. Of the 21 plots in the park open for displays, the atheists won 18. The Nativity story that once took 14 displays to tell – from the Annunciation, continuing to the manger in Bethlehem and onto infant Jesus’ journey to Egypt and back to Nazareth – had to be abridged to three and crammed into two plots.

“A small group of out-of-town atheists is trying to hijack Santa Monica’s nearly 60-year-long Christmas tradition,” said Hunter Jameson, chairman of the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, the group that works with more than a dozen churches and civic groups to organize the display.

Jameson said he intends to keep the Nativity tradition many have enjoyed since 1953 from being displaced. The park, he said, is the “historic home where it really belongs.”

“Their goal is getting rid of us, and squelching our First Amendment rights,” said Jameson, 65, who no longer lives in Santa Monica but still worships at Lighthouse Church of Santa Monica.

Patrick Elliott, a lawyer for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, said tradition is no excuse for violating the boundaries between church and state. “Just because they’re long-standing doesn’t mean they’re right,” he said.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the foundation, said December is a busy time for the organization’s attorneys, who challenge the use of public spaces for religious messages.

Gaylor called such displays a “territorial attempt by Christians to impose their beliefs in this season.”

“That creates an atmosphere of intimidation,” she said, noting that vandals destroyed the organization’s banner after it was hung in Palisades Park.

In Santa Monica, atheist Damon Vix, 43, called national organizations seeking help because he felt marginalized by the display.

Last year, Vix, a Burbank prop maker, put up a display of his own: signs with quotes from Thomas Jefferson, quotes his critics say are of dubious veracity. (It’s worth noting that both sides suspect the Founding Fathers would support them.)

Others have complained the atheists should at the very least come up with something more than a sign attached to a chain-link cage, and use more of the space they have been allotted. “I wish they had been more creative,” one city councilman said.