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Atheists vs. Christians: Inside One of America's Bitterest Nativity Scene Battles

Santa Monica is ground zero in the fault lines between Christian tradition, separation of church and state, and the First Amendment.
 
 
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Legend has it that the atheist Damon Vix led the charge that stopped the California beach city of Santa Monica from erecting and enabling life-sized Christian nativity scenes that crowded out the seaside views of an increasing demographic of locals and tourists. Vix has made plenty of enemies along the way. As one online detractor wrote, "His goals include riding [sic] the world of Christianity and removing 'One Nation Under God' from the pledge of allegiance. He is an active member of the American Atheist in Santa Monica and spends his free time doing everything in his power to end free speech in America if it relates to Christianity. Surprisingly he is still managing to live in Santa Monica despite being one of the most hated men in America."

Vix seems fine with his religious opponents frothing about that decades-long quest, which was validated in November by U.S. District Court  judge Audrey Collins, who ruled that Santa Monica could not be forced to open public lands to private displays. Vix explained to AlterNet that he takes the attacks on him in good humor and with a pinch of salt. "I must say that I really don't care what the hardcore Christians have to say," Vix said. "Their religion describes the world as being flat; women coming from a man's rib and therefore being inferior to him; people living inside whales; talking serpents." 

Of Atheism and Terrorism

Vix's humor on the matter is a refreshing change from his detractors in the  Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, whose alarming rhetoric conjures up the specters of war and terrorism. They've termed a 1979 lawsuit threat from  American Atheists a "bomb," and their crusading attorney William Becker -- who continues through failed injunctions and lawsuits to try to change Santa Monica's mind -- accused Vix and his activist accomplices of engaging in " a form of civic terrorism." That accusation was echoed across the continent in Virginia by  Loudon County supervisor Ken Reid, who, in the pages of Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Washington Times called a similar campaign to allow access to public spaces from the non-religious the work of "a group of terrorists...who basically want to stamp out religion."

"How ridiculous," laughed  Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor, one target of Becker's terrorism charge. "Christians do not own the month of December, which we've been saying for years. But this is a real manifestation of the proprietary feeling that this is their month. And we see this everywhere we go when we complain about nativity scenes on public property, which often stem from the '50s. Lots of these violations have their heart in the  Joseph McCarthy era."

In fact, McCarthy was mounting inquiries for his ill-fated crusade against communists in the United States Army when Santa Monica's first nativity scene arrived in 1953. The brainchild of Hollywood actors and producers Joan Woodbury and Henry Wilcoxon, Santa Monica's nativity celebrations started life in the 1950s as a naked merge of religion and capitalism. Shepherded into being by local businessmen and Chamber of Commerce members Herb Spurgin and Ysidro Reyes -- whose great-great-grandfather built Santa Monica's first house -- the religious tradition was pitched to the city as a "common interest of businesses" that "would bring visitors who were potential shoppers into the community."

It started as a blowout pageant, including choristers, floats and plays, and by the end of the '50s the number of installations had swelled to 14. The city, which assisted with finance, construction and maintenance, even decided to call Santa Monica the "City of the Christmas Story" during December. According to Gaylor, that remains an ideological and commercial habit that's hard for the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee to break, despite its recent failures.

 
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