In Santa Monica, battle over Christmas displays takes a new twist

In a sunny park overlooking the beach in Santa Monica, where a cool breeze blows in from the Pacific, the so-called war over Christmas has found its latest battlefield.

Over almost six decades, a collection of Santa Monica’s Christian churches have re-created the sprawling, life-sized Nativity scenes of Jesus Christ’s birth.

But this year, there’s no room in the park.

PHOTOS: Battle over Christmas displays

Atheist groups objected to churches’ use of the public Palisades Park to espouse a religious message and applied to the city of Santa Monica for their own spaces.

To keep it fair and legal, officials in the famously liberal city turned to a lottery to dole out spots in the prime location along Ocean Avenue.


The atheists turned out to be the lucky ones: Of the 21 plots in the park open for displays, they won 18. A Jewish group that sets up a menorah won another.

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.

Now, people walking down the sidewalk pass scenes of the Annunciation, the creche and tidings of “Peace on Earth.” Then, a few yards away, a poster from American Atheists: “37 Million Americans Know MYTHS When They See Them. What do you see?”

The debate in Santa Monica is one of several current disputes in the United States — and one of hundreds of such “seasonal violations” that atheist organizations have responded to in recent years. In Texas and Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, atheists are waging similar battles against Christmas scenes in government-owned places.

As with the Nativity in Santa Monica, the groups are upending decades-old traditions, leaving residents incensed over losing a staple of the season in their community.

“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. Palisades Park, he said, is the “historic home where it really belongs.”

“Their goal is getting rid of us, and squelching our 1st 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.

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

“It’s littering — literally, littering — these spaces,” Gaylor said of such displays, which she said are a “territorial attempt by Christians to impose their beliefs in this season.”

“That creates an atmosphere of intimidation,” said Gaylor, who noted that the organization’s banner was destroyed by vandals after being hung in Palisades Park. “Christians are the insiders, and everyone else is an outsider.”

In Santa Monica, atheist Damon Vix called national organizations seeking help because he felt marginalized by the display, and tradition alone didn’t merit saving it. Vix, a 43-year-old prop maker from Burbank, said the display “defines Santa Monica as a Christian city, and I feel very excluded by that.”

Last year, he put up a display of his own: signs with quotes from Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln — quotes that his opponents say are of dubious veracity. (It’s worth noting that both sides suspect the Founding Fathers would support them.)

Others have complained that 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.

The Rev. Keith Magee, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, said the atheists have deprived a coalition of Christian faiths (Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic and others) and the community (doctors, real estate agents and the Santa Monica Police Assn. are among the sponsors) of a tradition that allowed so many to come together to celebrate a belief so important to them.

“Why did they have to come to Santa Monica to do this?” said Magee, who added that he is grateful for what little space they have to share the story of Christ’s birth.

Gaylor, on the other hand, offered greetings for what she called the real reason for the season: Merry Winter Solstice.

PHOTOS: Battle over Christmas displays