For nearly 60 years, a group of Santa Monica churches have come together to create several nativities illustrating different scenes from the birth of Jesus Christ. The displays are erected along a stretch of Ocean Avenue, and for all of the previous years there was little to no competition for the 21 available spaces.
That changed this year, when more than a dozen groups competed for the spots, forcing the city to create a lottery system to fairly dole out each lot. The churches got three of them, a Jewish group got one and two other groups received all of the remaining slots for "solstice greetings."
The church group was incensed. They started a letter-writing campaign to get the city to give them more slots and held a flashlight vigil to draw attention to their cause. It was particularly galling that the two groups that got the bulk of the display spaces have, so far, used only three of them. Hunter Jameson, chairman of the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, said he felt the lottery rules were fair, but manipulated by atheist individuals that applied.
"Through the force of numbers, [they] were able ... to win the vast majority of the space," he said. "Our problem with that is that this attempt was transparently not a good faith effort to put up their own display, but rather to force us out of the park."
One of the atheist booths contains a Thomas Jefferson quote likening religion to fables and mythology, while another reads "HAPPY SOLSTICE" in big bold letters. A full block remains unused, and according to the man behind the atheist effort, Damon Vix, he plans to keep it that way.
"There's no way the city can equally represent everybody's view in this country – there's not enough real estate. So I think they're kind of doomed to failure, and any way they set the system up, besides just canceling this program that they started 60 years ago, is going to alienate somebody," he said. "I'm using it as a park, as it should be used, to demonstrate my idea of what a park should look like."
Vix said that he is fighting for equal protection under the law. By intentionally decorating only two or three booths, his displays match the church’s scenes in number. He said that past years, Christian sets dominated park grounds, and the few atheist lots were either stolen or largely ignored.
The church group pointed out that these groups aren’t even local, and the city should be giving preference to Santa Monica residents. For the city’s part they say the displays are about free speech and everyone, from churches to atheists, have a right to the display spaces on city property. Barbara Stinchfield, director of community and cultural services for Santa Monica, said because public parks are considered "classic public forums," individuals have maximum protection under the First Amendment.
"The city pretty much has its hands tied, because the first amendment is the cornerstone of our constitution," she said.
But now the national media is picking up this story, will that change the city’s mind? Are the atheist groups determined to keep Christians nativities off public land in Santa Monica? Do religious displays on public land violate the separation of church and state?
Barbara Stinchfield, Director of Community and Cultural Services, City of Santa Monica
Hunter Jameson, Chairman of Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee
Damon Vix, began the effort to put atheist message in nativity display spaces