Atheists vs. Christians: Inside One of America's Bitterest Nativity Scene Battles
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"They still do act as if they're the true citizens and everyone else are second-class citizens," she told AlterNet . "We're supposed to go away and not rain on their parade, because our existence alone is enough to spoil their fun. They're not content with atheists being part of the marketplace of ideas, and to let the people make up their own minds about what they believe."
Damon the Demon
Damon Vix made up his mind in the 1990s, "when I first saw the displays while working as a driver for the Los Angeles Times," he told AlterNet -- reminding us that he's not the atheist who started this fight, just the one who stopped it. "I saw the signs that read 'Santa Monica: City of the Christmas Story' and all the Bible quotes, the same Bible that says that people like me are going to hell," he said. "l felt that the city was telling me that I didn't belong."
By then, Santa Monica was undergoing a radical economic development. The once-blighted Santa Monica Pier amusement parks and environs were being transformed by a blocks-long upscale outdoor mall called the Third Street Promenade. Taken together with the Pier, Palisades Park, Muscle Beach and now Apple's largest store on the West Coast, Santa Monica today has become a shiny walkable California metropolis, churning out more than $1 billion in tourism revenue last year.
That's about a year after Vix finally decided to act against the religious installations that were offending the sensibilities of an increasingly secular demographic. Santa Monica's nativity scenes had already been suffering body blows since the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, which soured the city on continuing to finance, assist and underwrite the tradition, whose financial troubles were exacerbated by legal challenges from Atheists United and the American Civil Liberties Union. A brief reprieve, cosmologically speaking, arrived in 1984, courtesy of a Supreme Court ruling in Lynch v. Donnelly arguing that Thomas Jefferson's hallowed wall of separation between church and state was merely a "useful figure of speech." A "metaphor," as Chief Justice Burger, who delivered the opinion, infamously explained.
But thanks to that illogical juridical conclusion -- about a nativity scene in Rhode Island, no less -- as well the predictable rise of secularity and ongoing decoupling of Christmas from Christ, the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee's financial and legal challenges inevitably returned. And Vix was there, waiting with open arms and a resolved mind.
"I found out in 2009 that California's Atheists United had a very small display in the park, a gnome to be precise," Vix told AlterNet. "So I came up with the idea that if there were multiple Christian displays, there should be multiple atheist displays as well. I decided not to direct my display at the Christians, who were in fact doing nothing wrong other than disagreeing with me, and instead directed my attention to the real problem: The city of Santa Monica and its Winter Displays in Palisades Park program. They were threatened by a lawsuit in 1979, and even though people had complained for decades, the city kept operating the program.
"If they were to attempt the same program today, it would be deemed unconstitutional. However, this unconstitutional program had actually become a tradition! This to me was unacceptable."
Exploiting Civic Pressure Points
Seizing upon the problem of the city's privileged relationship with the nativity scenes it had built and supported for decades at taxpayer expense, Damon Vix located Santa Monica's legal pressure points and pushed hard, alongside his fellow free-thinkers in Atheists United, American Atheists, Freedom From Religion Foundation and others. And finally Santa Monica folded, at first abandoning its Christian exclusivity for Annie Laurie Gaylor's "marketplace of ideas," which gave Vix an opening to publicly critique not only dominant theology and local government, but artistic value itself.