OCEAN AVENUE — A coalition of 13 churches will open a truncated version of their annual holiday display Sunday with an impassioned plea to City Hall to restore 11 pieces of prize real estate that were snatched up by a group of activist atheists.
An organization called Save Our Nativity Scenes, or SONS, requested that churches ring bells at 3 p.m. Dec. 11 to signal the start of a ceremony that will end in a flashlight vigil, urging city officials to reserve space specifically for the booths.
For the past 57 years, the churches erected 14 displays along the length of Ocean Avenue depicting scenes from the nativity story about the birth of Jesus Christ using life-size figures.
In all that time, the churches have had little to no competition for the total 21 spaces available for displays, because only three regular applicants took up approximately 16 spaces.
Not this year.
For the first time in the history of the winter holiday displays 13 individuals entered the race for the 21 spaces rather than the usual three, forcing City Hall to use a random lottery system to allot the spots.
That process left the churches with only two spaces on which they can put up only three of the usual 14 scenes.
A Jewish group received one space for a menorah and two individuals snagged a total of 18 spaces for “solstice greetings.” One person can request a maximum of nine spaces.
To date, only two of the solstice spots have been filled, and both with set-ups declaring an aversion to organized religion.
It smacks of collusion, said Hunter Jameson, a spokesperson for the churches.
“Our belief is that these new applicants have been working together to displace and push out the nativity scenes from the park, rather than erecting a full display of their own,” Jameson said.
It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.
Damon Vix, a prop builder who works off and on in Santa Monica, has his crosshairs set on the religious displays.
Vix burst onto the winter display scene in 2010 when he put up a sign emblazoned with Thomas Jefferson’s quote, “Religions are all alike — founded on fables and mythologies,” and other selections from both the founding fathers and Supreme Court decisions about the importance of separating church and state.
He now helps other atheists populate the spaces in Palisades Park, including the national American Atheists, Inc., which has put up informational booths sporadically since 1982, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
“For 60 years, it’s almost exclusively been the point of view of Christians putting up nativity scenes for a whole city block,” Vix said.
Secularists of all stripes feel the need to be more vocal, and express their civil rights and beliefs on religion, Vix said.
The free speech argument only goes so far with Jameson, who pointed out that not only were the spaces empty as of Dec. 8, the people who applied to fill them are not Santa Monica residents.
“That is not really fair, not in the spirit of the rules and certainly not in the spirit of free speech,” Jameson said.
Jameson pushed for a “local preference” for the display spaces, similar to that given to Santa Monica-based sports teams for access to public fields. City Hall has shown a clear recognition of local preference in those areas, and should do so here, he said.
“A local group should get the ability to display and continue a community tradition,” Jameson said.
Unlike sports, the winter displays cross the boundary into First Amendment rights, which know no geographical boundaries, wrote City Attorney Marsha Moutrie in an e-mail.
“Everyone has equal rights to use the streets and parks for expressive activities, irrespective of residency,” Moutrie wrote.
Vix doesn’t blame the churches for their activism. He believes they feel compelled to spread their views, he just doesn’t feel they’re adding anything to the conversation.
“I absolutely believe that it’s superstition and they’re hindering our society,” he said. “I’m sure they’ll try anything they can. I hope the city can make a good choice.”