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Austin Cline

Santa Monica Nativity Scene Ban Results From Atheist Controversy

By July 6, 2012

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For almost 60 years, Santa Monica gave exclusive space to Christians to erect nativity displays during Christmas. No one else was permitted to do this, a clearly unconstitutional practice. Now, no one will be permitted to do it because all unattended displays have been eliminated.

1950s Nativity Display
1950s Nativity Scene
Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty

Last year, when Santa Monica opened up the public space to anyone who wanted to erect a display, they had to do it by lottery -- and Christians only got two of twenty-one plots. They were accustomed to getting fourteen plots and standing alone with no competition.

Th elimination of special favoritism which they were accustomed to was too much for Christians to accept, so now no unattended displays will be permitted during the holidays.

City Atty. Marsha Jones Moutrie told the council that the city had received expressions of concern about 1st Amendment issues, including letters from two "K Street" law firms, a reference to the Washington thoroughfare known for lobbyists. She also said city staff had received "threats, physical and legal."

She added that the lottery would become increasingly costly and difficult to administer given the heated emotions surrounding the process. "Our research shows we can legally ban all unattended displays in parks," she said. ...

Council members said the tradition should continue, but on private property. "We're not shutting down speech in Palisades Park," said Councilwoman Gleam Davis.

The vote was 5-0. Two members were absent.

Source: LA Times

Some of the Christians who attended this meeting accused atheists of being "scrooges" and "grinches," but if you pay attention you'll notice that no atheists were calling for a blanket ban. Atheists were simply given equal time alongside Christians -- and that's what these Christians were complaining about. So they are saying that it's being a "scrooge" or a "grinch" to demand equality.

Nativity displays aren't being banned from Santa Monica, they just aren't going to be permitted on public land -- and neither are any other displays, either. Presumably Christians have enough churches in the area to erect unattended displays on church property. If not, then there isn't enough private support for religion to justify government interest or government displays.

And Christians who care so much about having implicit government approval for their views can (it seems) have attended displays on public property -- perhaps even a "living" nativity scene, if they want. That, however, will require some personal commitment rather than government support. Or don't conservative Christians there believe in taking personal responsibility for expressing their religious beliefs?

The most common defense for the displays appears to be "tradition" -- the displays have existed for so long that somehow this means they must be legal and must be permitted to continue. Could there possibly be a worse argument? It's completely worthless from a legal perspective and anyone who stops to think about it for more than a few minutes should recognize this. So anyone you see using it is either deliberately trying to deceive others or hasn't given their own ideas very much thought.

July 10, 2012 at 2:48 pm
(1) Dean J. Smith says:

Many of the atheists’ displays were vandalized with spray paint.

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