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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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"I decided to put up an unattractive fenced-in display, to both keep it safe and to highlight the fact that the program operated by the city didn't really have any aesthetic value to add to the park," Vix explained. "Rather than say something myself, I quoted the founding fathers, Supreme Court cases regarding the separation of church and state, quotes from ex-presidents and the words 'Merry Solstice.'"

While setting up his display, Vix followed a city rule that stakes couldn't be used to secure displays and banners, so he settled for 600 pounds of sandbags. When he noted to a park supervisor that the Nativity Scenes Committees were stabbing illegal stakes into Palisades Park to support their life-sized displays, the super shrugged and said something about being powerless to enforce the city's own rules. "The nativity scenes' running the show," said Vix.

The Kafkaesque process extended to parking meters, which the city bagged so no one could park in front of the street-facing displays. When the equal opportunity-minded Vix landed his own bagged parking meters -- at taxpayer expense, like the nativity scenes -- the city called it a day and decided it would much rather have the parking revenue, thanks. The quid pro quo moved on to the unlimited display lots themselves, which Vix started signing up for in 2010. By 2011, Santa Monica shut that down too and started a lottery system of limited spaces, which was further complicated by Vix, who recruited friends to aid his cause.

"Since there were multiple churches, businesses and the Santa Monica Policeman's Association involved in the nativity displays, I decided to get multiple atheist groups involved," he explained. "All it took was a couple of emails and phone calls, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Atheists, Atheists United, Generation Atheists, and Camp Quests were all involved. And even PETA asked me to set up a display!"

Eventually Santa Monica caved in and banned private displays at Palisades Park, and the rest is atheist history, decades in the making.

The Post-Religious Present

"We’ve been fighting this for years, and we're happy to see that the city finally decided that this type of event which used city resources was inappropriate," Atheists United president Michael Khalili told AlterNet. "Now, the religious organizations that want to display a public celebration of their deity will have to comply with the same laws as everyone else."

Vix's crusade also resonates with the shifts in American culture. "The demographics are changing," Freedom From Religion Foundation's Gaylor explained. "California is already up there, in terms of the non-religious, which the American Religious ID Survey for 2008 showed is around 18 percent. Now we're seeing Pew say one in five are non-religious, as are one in three of the youth demographic. Our numbers are continuing to climb, while churches are seeing a continuing decline. So it can't go on like this."

"Now that this has been resolved, I feel that there is a lesson to be learned," Vix said. "Over the last 60 years, the conflicts, lawsuits, threats, anger, insults, vandalism and alienation could have been avoided if the city had never violated this great American ideal of the separation of church and state. It's a testament to our Founding Fathers' insight that they figured out a solution to preventing this type of conflict in the first place. In the end, the religious who want to display nativity scenes during the entire month of December have not lost a single civil right -- just an unfortunate tradition. The entire city is made whole and Christmas is preserved for everyone."

 
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