by Charles Haynes, director of Religious Freedom Education Project
In the angry eyes of Christians in Santa Monica, Calif., Damon Vix is the atheist who stole Christmas.
Vix is blamed for the city’s decision to ban all private displays in Palisades Park, ending a tradition of 14 Nativity scenes erected by church groups in the park every December for the last 60 years.
The Santa Monica Christmas controversy began several years ago when Vix decided to counter the crèches by posting a sign with a quotation mistakenly attributed to Thomas Jefferson:
“Religions are all alike — founded upon fables and mythologies.” Other atheists joined Vix to demand space, forcing the city to set up a lottery to divvy up slots in the park. Tensions mounted in the community last December after atheist groups flooded the lottery pool and won most of the available space. Many of their displays were vandalized.
In June, frustrated city officials tried to end the holiday war by banning all private displays in the park. Churches fought back with a lawsuit. But last week they lost round one when a federal judge allowed the ban to take effect.
The dueling displays in Santa Monica are the latest example of a trend across the country.
Atheists are employing a new strategy to challenge the presence of religion in the public square: Wherever religious messages are allowed in public parks or government buildings, atheist groups increasingly demand equal time and space.
Of course, Vix and many other atheists would prefer to see all religious symbols banned from public property, even when privately sponsored, as a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. In their view, a Nativity scene on public property sends a message of government endorsement of religion.
But the U.S. Supreme Court sees it differently.
Although government may not promote a religious message, the Court has ruled that private religious expression in a public forum doesn’t violate the establishment clause as long as other expression is allowed on equal terms.
So Santa Monica may constitutionally allow churches’ Nativity displays in the park if, and only if, the city allows other groups to display their messages.
The only other option open to city officials is to shut down the forum for all nongovernment expression, which is what Santa Monica decided to do.
Savvy atheists have figured out that the best way to beat them is to join them: Counter religious messages with anti-religious messages — and government officials have no choice but to allow all or nothing.
The strategy seems to be working. A few years ago, Washington state barred all nongovernment displays in the Capitol building after atheist groups put up signs mocking religion next to religious displays in December.
In Arkansas, it took an order by a federal judge to force the state to allow atheists to erect a “winter solstice” display next to a privately sponsored Nativity scene at the Capitol. Similar conflicts have broken out across America.
Beyond the angry rhetoric, both sides in this battle have made valid — and valuable — constitutional points:
Religious groups have established that the First Amendment separates church from state, but not religious expression from public spaces. Whenever government creates a public forum, it can’t bar purely private religious expression.
Atheists have established that the First Amendment creates a level playing field. If religious groups get space in public parks or government buildings, then so must other groups — including in December.
So now that we all understand that a right for one is a right for all, maybe it’s time for atheist groups to declare victory and stay home for the holidays. Let Christian groups set up Nativity displays in public spaces unanswered in December — and save the atheist messages for another time of year.
Yes, I understand why atheists want to make sure that religion isn’t privileged by government in the public square (as it has been for much of our history). But at some point (and Santa Monica has surely reached it) in-your-face tactics become counterproductive and needlessly divisive.
After all, whether we celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, the winter solstice or none of the above, we can all benefit from a more civil and peaceful public square.
Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001; on the web at: firstamendmentcenter.org; by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.