Free Speech and The War on Christmas

In 1953,  a tradition began in Santa Monica, California. Nativity scenes were displayed in Palisades Park at Christmas time, earning Santa Monica the nickname “City of the Christmas Story.” Now, after a bitter dispute over free speech, that nickname has come to an end. 

Three years ago, athiest Damon Vix, member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, was granted one of the 21 available display sites. He hung a sign with a quote from Thomas Jefferson saying, on one side “Religions are all alike–founded on fables and mythologies,” and, on the other side “Happy Solstice.” He did the same two years ago. Last year, Vix took things further. He enlisted others to apply for display sites, and they won 18 of the 21 slots, which were filled with displays of Poseidon, Jesus, Santa Claus, Satan, and a Flying Spaghetti Monster deity. The city responded by banning private, unattended displays at the park.

A Christian group fought back unsuccessfully to have these spaces reopened. U.S. District Court Judge Audrey Collins issued the ruling, saying that the group, which has erected a life-sized nativity scene for years, had other options. In her ruling, she wrote that “For instance, plaintiff could erect displays in some public parks around the city (excluding Palisades Park) as part of a one-day community events permit, or plaintiff could erect attended displays in all of the city’s public parks. Plaintiff raises several arguments to suggest that these alternatives are not adequate, but none is persuasive.”

William Becker, the lawyer who represented the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee said “These athiests are intolerant and they got a friendly government here to back them….we’re going down the slippery slope” The City Council sees it differently. “It became a war in the park. It was getting out of control,” said Bob Holbrook, a council member. Local government felt that any ongoing legal fights would be too costly for citizens.

The Nativity Scenes will still be seen but, this year at least, they will be on private property. Nativity Scenes Committee Chairman Hunter Jameson said in a statement “We are deeply grateful for the use of this new site,” but pledged to fight on saying that this is “not a resolution.” “Judges are fallible,” Becker said. “They are often motivated by their own ideological dispositions…Everybody has the right to use private property to express themselves. It’s still no substitute for 1st Amendment protections that we are guaranteed to express our viewpoints in a public forum.”

As first amendment battles rage on, fighting is getting heavier on the War on Christmas front. Government officials at all levels should respect the rights of all Americans to freely express their views in public spaces. It is, after all, a cornerstone of our country.