November 19 (RIA Novosti) - A federal judge in the Western US state of California was expected to weigh in Monday in a pivotal battle over a long-standing Christmas tradition that pits Christians against atheists with the coastal city of Santa Monica caught in the middle.
At issue is whether the city can ban churches from setting up an elaborate, 14-scene diorama in a public park depicting the Nativity – the story of the birth of Jesus – in an annual display that began in 1953 and earned Santa Monica the nickname City of the Christmas Story.
"It's a sad, sad commentary on the attitudes of the day that a nearly 60-year-old Christmas tradition is now having to hunt for a home, something like our savior had to hunt for a place to be born because the world was not interested," Hunter Jameson, head of the nonprofit Santa Monica Nativity Scene Committee, told the Associated Press (AP).
Three years ago, local resident Damon Vix – an atheist – was granted a booth in the park and according to AP hung a sign quoting Thomas Jefferson right next to the nativity display: "Religions are all alike – founded on fables and mythologies."
But last year he took his simple protest against religious messages to a new level, recruiting others to apply for their own permits to display exhibits in the park.
They won 18 of the 21 spaces and erected confrontational signs with in-your-face messages that outraged many in the Christian community, including one that showed pictures of Poseidon, Jesus, Santa Claus and the Devil and read: "37 million Americans know myths when they see them."
City officials, fed up with trying to prevent vandalism and act as referee between the two opposing sides, decided to ban the displays in the public park altogether – and prompted a lawsuit filed by churches who claim the ban violates their freedom of 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 Santa Monica Nativity Scene Committee.
"Our goal is to preserve the tradition in Santa Monica and to keep Christmas alive."
The case is scheduled to be heard in federal court Monday. The Committee is hoping the judge will block the ban on the displays until the case is resolved.