Christians, atheists fight over tradition
Santa Monica - An unseasonably rancorous row has erupted between Christians and atheists in an ocean-front Californian city, as the non-religious stand accused of usurping a decades-old Christmas tradition.
Only yards from the world-famous Santa Monica pier, where tourists stroll while enjoying spectacular Pacific views, local Christians are fuming at "out-of-town atheists" they say are causing outrage to the local community.
The heart of the row lies in Palisades Park, where for decades local Christians have erected a series of Nativity displays along Ocean Avenue, overlooking the Pacific Coast Highway and just along from the crowded pier.
The problem stems from the fact that, in a lottery to decide who got how many display spaces, atheists unexpectedly won 18 out of 21, squeezing the Christians - who in previous years had 14 plots - into just two.
Atheists ‘improperly using spaces’
"We have absolutely no objection to other groups or individuals with views different from ours, including atheists, from expressing their views in the park," said Hunter Jameson, head of the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee.
But he told AFP they should abide by "the spirit as well as the letter of the rules," accusing the atheists of improperly using their spaces - several were empty, and many consisted of just a wooden post with a sign on top.
"We believe... that our opponents have gamed the rules with the primary aim of driving us out of the park while not engaging in a good-faith effort to mount a full display of their own as the rules require," he said.
For the atheists, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) insists that the lottery application that resulted in their display bonanza was made by locals, not out-of-towners.
"We applaud the freedom of Christians to advertise their mythology, their superstition about this God man who damns everybody to hell who doesn't bow down before him, that's fine, that’s their business," said spokesperson Dan Barker.
But he alleged that the Nativity displays were backed by the city authorities - something Jameson denies. "They can promote it, as long as it's clear that it's not the city doing it then," said Barker.
Out in the sunshine in Palisades Park, Vikki Hill, 57, says she feels sorry for the atheists, as she stands defending the traditional Nativity Scenes, including statues of Joseph and Mary, and Jesus in the manger.
"Unfortunately the atheists' hearts are so troubled, they come and cuss me out for being here, and then they get more angry cos they can't make me sad," she said, holding a sign reading: "Merry Christmas, it's all about Jesus."
"I ask God to bless them, which makes them so infuriated... Those are the people we need to pray for," she told AFP, adding that she was "expressing my joy for my Lord and Saviour who this holiday is all about."
Displays could stop
Santa Monica - which lies at the end of the fabled Route 66 west of Los Angeles, attracts millions of tourists and daytrippers every year, to its pier, broad beaches and spectacular mountain and ocean views.
The laid-back city's mayor Gleam Davis said she did not know if a lottery would be held next year, and questioned the future of any displays.
"If we cannot find another way to allocate space, we may have to consider ending the displays in Palisades Park," Davis told the local Lookout News online information service.
That was slammed as a bad idea by the chairperson of the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee.
"I think that would be most unwise," he said, adding: "That is not the way to deal with a challenge to a nearly 60-year-old tradition here in Santa Monica," said Jameson.
Back out on Ocean Avenue, Steve Chamberlain said he didn't know what all the fuss is about, as he studied an atheist poster showing Father Christmas, Jesus and Satan, with the tag "37 million Americans know MYTHS when they see them."
"I think the atheists have just as much a right to put up things at Christmas as Christians do," said the 73-year-old, describing himself as agnostic. "They can put up Islamic beliefs for all I care."
But he acknowledged: "I would have to say that I'm in the minority here. When you tell somebody you're agnostic, they look at you funny and say, 'What's that?' "