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Atheists get Santa Monica Nativity's display spaces in park

December 12, 2011 |  2:48 pm

A Nativity display in Santa Monica

For nearly 60 years at Christmastime, Christian congregations from Santa Monica have come together to organize a life-sized Nativity scene, using 14 display areas in a city park to illustrate the story of the birth of Jesus Christ.

This year, however, the story had to be abridged.

Because of a city lottery system to dole out available spots in Santa Monica's Palisades Park, along Ocean Avenue, atheists have been able to claim most of the display spaces traditionally used for the Nativity, leaving room for only three of the scenes.

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Damon Vix, an atheist, had a display last year that included a quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson: "Religions are all alike -- founded on fables and mythologies." And this year, he told the Santa Monica Daily Press that he encouraged other atheists to join him.

"For 60 years, it's almost exclusively been the point of view of Christians putting up Nativity scenes for a whole city block," Vix told the Daily Press.

But the group that has long organized the Nativity scenes bristled at the atheists' move, saying it upends a long-standing winter tradition for the city -- and impedes their freedom of expression.

"By trying to push the Nativity scene out of the park and silence us, these people are infringing on our freedom and 1st Amendment rights," said Hunter Jameson, a Nativity organizer, said in a statement. "The truth is this: The Nativity Scenes Committee has no objection to displays anyone else puts up under the rules that disagree with ours. That is fine. That is the American way of free speech and fair play. Unlike our opponents, we are not trying to push anyone out of Palisades Park. There is plenty of room for all the displays that ever have been erected at Christmas, including this year."

One of the other displays includes a menorah set up by a Jewish group.

City officials said it turned to the lottery system to make sure the process for distributing the display spaces was fair. City Atty. Marsha Moutrie told the Daily Press that "everyone has equal rights to use the streets and parks for expressive activities."


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Photo: A Nativity display in Santa Monica. Credit: KTLA-TV