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Battle over coastal Xmas display goes to LA court

Associated Press Modified: November 19, 2012 at 3:18 am •  Published: November 19, 2012
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Vix hung a simple sign that quoted Thomas Jefferson: "Religions are all alike -- founded on fables and mythologies." The other side read "Happy Solstice." He repeated the display the following year but then upped the stakes significantly.

In 2011, Vix recruited 10 others to inundate the city with applications for tongue-in-cheek displays such as a homage to the "Pastafarian religion," which would include an artistic representation of the great Flying Spaghetti Monster.

The secular coalition won 18 of 21 spaces. The two others went to the traditional Christmas displays and one to a Hanukkah display.

The atheists used half their spaces, displaying signs such as one that showed pictures of Poseidon, Jesus, Santa Claus and the devil and said: "37 million Americans know myths when they see them. What myths do you see?"

Most of the signs were vandalized and in the ensuing uproar, the city effectively ended a tradition that began in 1953 and earned Santa Monica one of its nicknames, the City of the Christmas Story.

The Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee argues in its lawsuit that atheists have the right to protest, but that freedom doesn't trump the Christians' right to free speech.

"If they want to hold an opposing viewpoint about the celebration of Christmas, they're free to do that — but they can't interfere with our right to engage in religious speech in a traditional public forum," said William Becker, attorney for the committee. "Our goal is to preserve the tradition in Santa Monica and to keep Christmas alive."

The city doesn't prohibit churches from caroling in the park, handing out literature or even staging a play about the birth of Jesus and churches can always set up a nativity on private land, Deputy City Attorney Jeanette Schachtner said in an email.

The decision to ban the displays also saves the city, which had administered the cumbersome lottery process used to award booths, both time and money while preserving the park's aesthetics, she said.

For his part, Vix is surprised — and slightly amused — at the legal battle spawned by his solitary act but doesn't plan anything further.

"That was such a unique and blatant example of the violation of the First Amendment that I felt I had to act," said the 44-year-old set builder. "If I had another goal, it would be to remove the 'under God' phrase from the Pledge of Allegiance — but that's a little too big for me to take on for right now."

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and religion, but also states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." That has been interpreted by courts as providing for separation of church and state, barring government bodies from promoting, endorsing or funding religion or religious institutions.