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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.

"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.

"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 quomoved 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."

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.
 
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