One of the most contentious debates surrounding the so-called “War on Christmas” in recent memory involves Santa Monica, Calif., a place once so filled with the holiday spirit it was nicknamed the “City of the Christmas Story.”
Today, the situation in Santa Monica is starkly different.
After housing a 14-scene nativity display for nearly six decades in Palisades Park, atheist pushback led officials to ban all unattended displays last year. This meant that the privately owned nativity was no longer welcome in the location where it had stood each holiday season since 1953.
When the final decision was made in 2012 to ban unattended displays, Santa Monica Nativity Scenes, the group responsible for the annual nativity tradition, was left with a conundrum. Organizers were forced to find a new home for the large display, which they eventually did.
This year, 13 scenes are being shown at Mount Olive Lutheran Church, a local house of worship, where they will remain outdoors for public viewing until Jan. 2.
“The Nativity Scenes Committee is deeply grateful to the people of Mount Olive Lutheran church and Interim Pastor Stephen Fiechter for providing a home for the Nativity Scenes for this milestone display,” Santa Monica Nativity Scenes said in a statement announcing the 60th anniversary of the nativity display, which was unveiled Dec. 15.
Despite being booted from the Palisades Park, the organizing committee still found a way to involve the nativity’s traditional home, holding its opening ceremony there.
Choral groups, Christmas music and a new holiday banner were presented during the event; the banner will reportedly have a home in the park at various points during the holiday season, though it is unclear how that will work and whether it will be unattended.
This follows the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes committee’s 2012 festivities, which included a unique work-around when it came to the city’s then-fresh ban on unattended displays: organizers staged a live nativity.
While Santa Monica’s unattended nativity ban is seen by some as a church vs. state victory and by others as a First Amendment infraction, the history leading up to it provides a reflection of what many other communities are facing as atheists and Christians battle it out over the “War on Christmas.”
Let’s take a brief look at the history of the Santa Monica nativity battle to see how the locality went from the “City of the Christmas Story” to a city that refuses to allow a traditional and revered tradition in its public park.
The contentious church vs. state began in 2009, when Damon Vix, a local atheist, was granted a permit in Palisades Park and decided to erect a booth that included a sign that read, “Religions are all alike — founded on fables and mythologies,” a statement attributed to Thomas Jefferson.
Then, the battle over the nativity intensified in 2011, when other local atheists joined Vix in applying for their own displays, successfully helping to nudge out most of the nativity scenes from Palisades Park.
In the end, secularists won 18 of the 21 available spaces after the city implemented a lottery system in an effort to avoid endorsing one theological view over another.
But the debate didn’t end there.
In 2012, rather than continue dealing with the nativity drama — which was reportedly costing the city extra administrative funds — Santa Monica officials decided to end the holiday tradition all together. While Christmas plays, carols and other activities are still permitted, unattended displays — including the nativity that had graced the park for nearly 60 years — are no longer allowed.
A report from KTLA-TV last year explains the atheist victory:
What do you think about the nativity ban? Let us know below.
Featured image via Santa Monica Nativity Scenes