Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP
A passerby looks at a display of an Atheist message along Ocean Avenue at Palisades Park in Santa Monica, Calif. on Tuesday. Most of the Christmas nativity scenes that local churches had placed in the park during the holiday season in the past were displaced this year by non-believers. Churches were allotted two of the 21 display sites, and one went to Isaac Levitansky of Chabad Channukah Menorah.
In Santa Monica’s Palisades Park this Christmas season, the baby Jesus had to make space for others at the inn — nonbelievers.
This year, all but a few of the 21 display spaces in the park that have housed Nativity scenes for nearly six decades were claimed for atheist displays.
Just as the winter season is a time when major religions to trumpet their beliefs, it is also a time when atheists spend extra energy pushing back against the influence of religion in public life, especially in government.
In Leesburg, Va., an atheist display depicting a skeleton in a Santa suit nailed to a cross caused a ruckus. The nonprofit American Atheists is putting up seasonal billboards calling for atheists to go public with their beliefs. And a group in Utah is taking the message to the heart of Mormonism.
“Religions are all alike – founded upon fables and mythologies,” reads a banner in one of the Santa Monica displays, quoting Thomas Jefferson.
There the holiday display sites are made available through an application process run by the city. This year, applications outnumbered displays for the first time, said Barbara Stinchfield, director of community and cultural services. She said that an atheist group got nine spaces, and another group laid claim to nine for "Christmas spirit and solstice decoration."
"For 60 years, it's almost exclusively been the point of view of Christians putting up Nativity scenes for a whole city block," said Damon Vix, who helped the nonprofits American Atheists and Freedom From Religion Foundation populate the display spaces.
The outcome, resulting in a two-block stretch of displays that are not primarily Christian-themed for the first time, sparked a stream of email and calls from the public, said Stinchfield.
"Most (people who inquire) are just confused about what happened, and we try to clear it up by informing of the restrictions we have, and the rights individuals have under the First Amendment," she said.
'Coming out' as atheist
Also this week, the American Atheists launched the second in a series of seasonal billboards that calls for atheists to go public with their beliefs during festivities with their families this holiday season: “Tell your family you don’t believe in gods… they just might agree.” The message, displayed on the New Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel into New York City, is accompanied by pictures of Jesus and Poseidon.
American Atheists, born out of an early court challenge to prayer in school, advocates for the civil liberties of atheists and the absolute separation of government and religion.
The nonprofit organization Freedom from Religion Foundation brings its holiday greetings to Mormon-dominated Salt Lake City with new billboards declaring "Reason's Greetings" to passersby and another with a stained-glass motif asking its viewers to "Imagine no Religion,"-- a reference to the John Lennon song.
One of the messages from the Freedom from Religion Foundation in a national billboard campaign that started in 2007.
"We want the nonreligious — freethinkers, atheists, agnostics and other skeptics — in Utah to know they are not alone,” says Dan Barker, a former evangelical minister who now co-directs FFRF on the groups' Web site.
Another theme for the group is to remind people of "the real reason for the season — the Winter Solstice, a ‘natural holiday,’ said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co--president.
Another atheist display, depicting a skeleton in a Santa suit nailed to a cross, msnbc.com reported last week, caused a kerfuffle in Leesburg Va., msnbc.com reported last week. The macabre Santa was one of nine displays allowed on the grounds of the Loudon County courthouse, most of them with more traditional Christmas tableaus.
"I think that it's just extremely, extremely sad," Leesburg council member Ken Reid was quoted as saying, "that somebody in this county who would try to basically debase Christmas like this. This really crossed the line."
The display didn't survive long. Someone tore the skeleton down by Monday night sparking renewed debate about free speech.
In 2009, Christmas displays on the courthouse lawn were banned after the constitutionality of a Nativity scene was questioned. Last year that decision was overturned and 10 displays were allowed on the lawn based on a first-come, first-served basis.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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