Freedom from Religion in Santa Monica

A victory has been won in Santa Monica by those seeking freedom from religion in public. (

While it is perfectly understandable that some (Christian and atheist) may prefer the considerable beauty of the Palisades Park to be unmarred by any type of display, this may by a pyrrhic victory for atheism.

For about 60 years different Christian groups have mounted life-size nativity scenes on public land in the Palisades Park. Beginning in 2009 atheists asked for spaces for displays, so the city council held a lottery for parcels of land. Damon Vix got one such display space. The AP report tell us that “His first display quoted Thomas Jefferson: ‘Religions are all alike — founded on fables and mythologies.”

The AP reports that “In 2011, Vix recruited 10 others to inundate the city with applications for tongue-in-cheek displays such as an homage to the “Pastafarian religion,” which would include an artistic representation of the great Flying Spaghetti Monster.  . . .The atheists used half the spaces they won, displaying signs such as one that showed pictures of Poseidon, Jesus, Santa Claus and the devil and said: ’37 million Americans know myths when they see them. What myths do you see?’”

In 2012 the city, faced with multiple complaints and rising tension banned all displays. It maintained that the lottery system for allocating them was too costly. A group wishing to maintain the customary displays sued. The court ruling mentioned in the article above upheld the city ruling shutting down the display space altogether, and the atheists have effectively purified the park of religion. And interestingly have purified it of of their message as well.

Three years of effort to mock and eventually remove the public display about the birth of Jesus didn’t leave anything positive behind, which seems to be an irony the atheist leader fails to appreciate.

“For his part, Vix said he was pleased with Monday’s ruling, but was also saddened by the anger being directed against atheists since he hung his first anti-God sign in 2009.

“So many people don’t understand atheists,” he said. “If you read the signs we put up, one said, ‘Love is all around you.’ That’s really a better understanding of who most atheists are.””

One assumes a better understanding of atheism than his own heckling of religion in the displays he both put up and encouraged.

In any case Vix and his allies now have no opportunity to freely display their beliefs and correct any misconceptions about atheism raised over the last few years.

The irony is that in Santa Monica has at least a couple of dozen Christian churches, some quite substantial. Their buildings, signs, and congregational life will continue to bear witness to their faith and beliefs. And that doesn’t even mention the thousands of consumption oriented commercial messages about Christmas that inundate Santa Monica as they do every American city. But with religion and its critics removed from the Palisades Park where will the atheists go? Where will they have a voice?

I have argued in other blogs that there is no non-religious public space. Some ethos, some dominant belief system, will fill the vacuum. Take the birth of Christ out of Christmas (or even the beliefs of those who think it all a sham) and the space is filled with commercial interests promoting materialist fantasies far more destructive than any religious myth.

Understanding, whether it is understanding of conventional religion or of atheism, simply isn’t served by driving religion from public spaces. Both Christians and atheists need to learn that you only have freedom for religious discourse and indeed anti-religious discourse when religion has a place in the public space.

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  • Brian Westley

    The city council only stopped allowing unattended displays in the park; people can still march around with signs in the park (or sing Christmas carols).

    “Understanding, whether it is understanding of conventional religion or of atheism, simply isn’t served by driving religion from public spaces. Both Christians and atheists need to learn that you only have freedom for religious discourse and indeed anti-religious discourse when religion has a place in the public space.”

    They still do, they just can’t put up unattended displays any more.

    • roberthunt

      Thanks for an important clarification. Perhaps a more dynamic set of interactions would result in more meaningful exchanges.

  • Calladus

    “…didn’t leave anything positive behind…”

    I disagree. The actions of the atheists DID have a net positive effect. First, it educated the public about the Constitutional separation of Church and State, and it gave a demonstration of why the State must remain neutral toward citizens of all religions, and of no religion.

    Second, it got rid of some unsightly structures used to house and protect these displays.

    All in all, quite a good job. Congratulations.

    • roberthunt

      I quite agree about the ugly structures. I doubt that anyone was particularly educated about separation of church and state, although the city learned that it is easier to say no to everyone than to find a mechanism that might facilitate public discourse around religion.

  • Rich Wilson

    “A victory has been won in Santa Barbara” Santa Barbara is not Santa Monica. They’re some 90 miles apart.

    • roberthunt

      I will correct it

  • eeenok

    “Three years of effort … didn’t leave anything positive behind” – only true if you don’t like uncluttered parks or rational discourse about unfair access to the bully pulpit

    “Vix and his allies now have no opportunity to freely display their beliefs and correct any misconceptions” … wrong again. people are extremely free to display their beliefs from property they own or hire. the exact point here, which the author has so much trouble grasping despite his irritation at atheist messages, is that it gets extremely irritating when people use public resources to push their message EXCEPT when it happens to be a message you agree with.

    the entire argument of this piece is “i have been enjoying the status quo where my point of view is unfairly forced upon people, and in the land of FREEDOM i should be allowed to continue that enjoyment”. the contradictions of this view have been manifestly exposed, but we might as well beat the author over the head with the mighty “hammer of irony” for all the effect inconvenient facts have on his predetermined viewpoint

    • roberthunt

      I fear that you read my piece through a rather skewed analytical framework. Not every defense of religion in public is necessarily a defense of Christian “speech.”

      In 2011 more than half of the display spaces in the Palisades Park went to atheists, so my defense of a public space available for displays is far more a defense of the rights of atheists than of Christians. To the extent that public resources were being used to push a message it was precisely the message of atheism. Which in my view is quite fair if Christians are going to draw on the same resources. You are quite right that people remain free to display their beliefs from property they own. And as I pointed out, this rather unfairly advantages Christians, who have such property.

      I do agree that this was a victory against ugly cages in an otherwise pretty place. But I see no evidence of rational discourse about unfair access to a bully pulpit. Such discourse would ask more deeply how, in a religiously diverse society, all viewpoints (including those of atheists and humanists and anyone who rejects religion) can share public space without unfair advantage and to the benefit of mutual understanding. In “just saying no” the City of Santa Monica has abandoned that discourse in favor of expediency. It is a victory for aesthetics, but not for understanding.

      Imagine, if you will, what might have transpired if the atheists had worked together with Christians and Jews, perhaps inviting others, to mount aesthetically pleasing displays of the diverse viewpoints of the Santa Monica community. It would have been far more positive for all concerned than either a Christian hegemony or an atheist response to that hegemony or even just emptiness.

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  • godlessveteran

    It wasn’t the atheists who shut down the displays. It was the (more-than-likely-Christian) vandals who damaged or destroyed only the atheist displays. It was the Christians who protested against fairly sharing the space with the atheists, necessitating the lottery. It was the Christians who failed to ensure they had enough stake in the lottery to be assured more than two spaces, and acted like spoiled brats when the atheists won more spaces.

    This scenario has played out in many variations. Any time atheists demand and win equal access to a publicly available program, it gets shut down. Like the leaflet program in some schools in VA and WI, where pamphlets for Scouting, church groups, charity drives, etc., were sent home with children. As soon as atheists or Wiccans decided to distribute literature as well, the programs were shut down altogether.

    Atheists are not the problem. Butt-hurt Christians who refuse to abide by the Constitution and share equally with others are the problem.

    • roberthunt

      The news reports don’t describe the scenario in the way you do, but I do not dispute that some of your account is true. I do doubt that members of leaders of the churches involved engaged in vandalism. Without doubt the Christian churches felt and acted on a sense of entitlement. I must also note that it was Christians who took the city of Santa Monica to court to continue offering the displays, not atheists, so Christians can hardly be accused of refusing to share equally in the public space. And it was the atheist leader who approved of the end of the displays. The Christians will appeal. At least in this specific case your argument does not hold.

      But your argument is more broadly valid. Since certain religious groups, notably Christians, already have unprecedented access to public attention, they can rather easily give up access to certain public spaces in order to deny everyone else access they don’t really need. Nor are only atheists affected. Smaller Christian groups, non-Christian religious groups, and particularly Muslims are victims of this imbalance of power in the public domain. This is why a discussion around freedom of and freedom from religion in public is important.

      Nor, I would argue, do those arguments belong only in court rooms. Courts decide what is legal or illegal, not what is right or wrong, nor what is just or unjust.