OCEAN AVENUE — The battle over the longtime nativity scenes and their upstart atheist counterparts in Palisades Park is attracting a crowd.

Adding to the national media attention and public outcry on both sides, animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wants in.

PETA has designs on placing a billboard emblazoned with the message “Give peas a chance: go vegan” on one of the coveted spots.

Damon Vix, the face of 11 atheist groups that won 18 of 21 spots in a lottery to earn the right to erect displays, said that he would have to pass on their offer because it’s too late for him to consider putting in the diligence to physically install it and win approval from City Hall to have the new billboard OK’d.

“I’d love to have them involved,” Vix said. “But maybe we’ll have to wait until next year.”

He said that PETA fits in with the message his group is trying to send, but the short window between now and when the scenes have to come down on Jan. 4, 2012 was just too narrow.

Vix would have to submit a site plan for any new display and that if differed with what he already has in place it would have to be reviewed by city inspectors. He wasn’t sure if it was too late to actually have City Hall even get involved.

City Hall couldn’t be reached for comment as of presstime.

After hearing about the struggle between religious and atheist groups over the scenes on a bluff overlooking the ocean, PETA officials thought there was enough public interest to warrant their entry into the fray.

“We thought this would be an appropriate sentiment in the midst of this contention time,” said Lindsay Rajt, PETA’s associate director of campaigns. “When we heard people on both sides were talking about it, it interested us.”

PETA officials reached out to Vix Friday in a letter asking him to consider including their message.

“As an atheist, a friend of the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair (founder of American Atheists), and a former speaker at the American Atheists convention in Florida long ago, may I ask for your help?” wrote PETA President Ingrid E. Newkirk. “Would you be so kind as to allow PETA to use one of the vacant spaces you have so cleverly obtained in the Santa Monica ‘nativity lottery’ so that we can set up our ‘Give Peas a Chance’ billboard?”

Although Vix is holding that it’s too late this year, he said that he would be happy to include PETA in his plans next year. He’s intent on requesting the maximum of nine sites for himself and will again help a number of atheist groups apply for spaces as well.

“Nationwide, this is a movement that is very positive for us,” Vix said. “We’re standing up for our civil rights.”

Vix began his desire to occupy space in the park two years ago because he believes that City Hall has no business offering the space to religious groups in the first place. By taking up the spots, he hopes that sooner or later officials will rethink the practice and stop it altogether.

Until then, he plans on applying each year, building his displays and creating a discussion about the separation of church and state and free speech.

“The only victory would be if the city never instigated the program,” he said. “Besides, I’d like to use the park itself as my display. The space should be used as just that.”

daniela@www.smdp.com

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