Atheists' move ends Christmas tradition in Santa Monica, prompts churches to sue

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2012, 5:12am

Californian Damon Vix did not have to go to court to push Christmas out of the city of Santa Monica. He just joined the festivities.

The American atheist's anti-God messages beside more traditional life-sized nativity displays in a park overlooking the beach over the past three years ignited a furious debate.

In response, the city snuffed the tradition this year rather than referee the rumble, prompting churches that have set up a 14-scene Christian diorama for decades to sue over freedom of speech. Their lawyer will ask a federal judge 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," said Hunter Jameson, head of the Santa Monica Nativity Scene Committee.

Missing from the courtroom drama will be Vix and his fellow atheists, who are not parties in the case. Their role outside court highlights a tactical shift.

"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 Centre and director of the Newseum's Religious Freedom Education Project in Washington. "If these church groups insist 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 non-believers 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 per cent of Americans say they have no religious affiliation, an increase from 15 per cent in the past five years.

Last year, to the horror of traditionalists, Vix and fellow atheists won 18 of 21 spaces in a ballot for booths in Palisades Park. Two went to the Christian 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 vandalised and, in the ensuing uproar, the city effectively ended a tradition that began in 1953.

The Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee argues in its lawsuit that atheists have the right to protest, but that freedom does not trump the Christians' right to free speech.