Accurate Holiday wars update from Santa Monica!

Accurate Holiday wars update from Santa Monica! November 20, 2012

Oh my! We may have a Nativity Lent miracle on our hands!

Trust me that I have read enough horrible “Christmas wars” stories in my journalistic life to recognize a decently reported one when I see it. I think the following Los Angeles Times story about the ongoing Santa Monica Nativity scene battles includes a few paragraphs of material — from a qualified, informed source — that make all the difference.

First, here is the sad, sad drama that is playing out once again:

Santa Monica may bar Nativity and other seasonal displays in public spaces, a federal judge tentatively ruled Monday.

In a case that has drawn national attention, Judge Audrey B. Collins of U.S. District Court in Los Angeles denied a church coalition’s request that the court require the city to allow Nativity scenes to be displayed in Palisades Park this year, as it has for nearly 60 years.

“The atheists won on this,” said William J. Becker Jr., an attorney for the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, a coalition of 13 churches and the Santa Monica Police Officers Assn. Standing in front of TV news cameras outside the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building, Becker predicted that the court on Dec. 3 would also grant the city’s request that his group’s lawsuit be dismissed.

That likely outcome, he said, marked “the erosion of 1st Amendment liberty for religious speech.” He compared the city to Pontius Pilate, the judge at Jesus’ trial, saying: “It’s a shame about Christmas. Pontius Pilate was exactly the same kind of administrator.”

Atheist groups praised the judge’s ruling as an example of the upholding of the separation of church and state.

So far, so predictable.

The key, of course, is that officials of the state — under “equal access” principles firmed up back in the 1990s by a broad coalition of liberals and conservatives — have one of two options.

First, they can throw the public spaces open to snarky holiday chaos with all comers treated equally. This gives you the “Pastafarian religion” exhibit, complete with the “Flying Spaghetti Monster,” sitting next to a traditional Christian Nativity scene. Then again, officials can elect to treat all faiths and interest groups equally by denying all requests for exhibitions of this kind. Legally, the state has to go to one extreme or the other, thus avoiding “viewpoint discrimination.”

Lo and behold, the Times team found someone, and even quoted them, who (a) is not connected with either warring camp and (b) actually knows something about the laws that are in play.

Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and director of the Newseum’s Religious Freedom Education Project in Washington, called Collins’ decision “consistent with other rulings.”

“It’s all or nothing in these cases,” he said. “If the government opens up and creates a limited forum, it can’t practice viewpoint discrimination. But it can say, well, we’re not going to have any. … There has to be a level playing field in the public sphere.”

So, for good and for ill, that is the state of church-state affairs at this point in time. You don’t have to like it to note that this newspaper report managed to get the crucial legal facts into the story. All too often, journalists just let the Christians shout at the atheists and the atheists shout at the Christians and that’s that.

This story gives us some of the shouting, of course, such as:

Since 1953, the coalition each December has erected a tableau of scenes depicting the birth of Jesus Christ. … To keep things fair and legal, the city held a lottery to parcel out slots. Atheists won 18 of 21 spaces. A Jewish group won another. The Nativity story that traditionally took up 14 displays was jammed into two.

A flap ensued. Vandals ripped down a banner the Freedom From Religion Foundation had hung at the park. The banner began: “At this season of the winter solstice, may reason prevail.”

Last June, concerned that the lottery would become increasingly costly because of the rising tensions, the City Council voted to ban all private, unattended displays in city parks. The city has cited other reasons for the prohibition, including damage to the park’s turf and some residents’ statements that they would prefer unobstructed ocean views to seasonal displays.

Tragically, this is one of those cases in which the most calm, logical and, dare I say, reverent option is silence. Then again, loyal GetReligion readers already know where I stand on these matters. Last year I summed up my views in three simple thoughts. Here they are again, cleaned up a bit:

(1) I, personally, have never understood why so many religious believers think it is so important to have a creche on the lawn of their local government’s secular headquarters.

(2) Then again, I’ve never understood why some religious believers think it is a victory for Christians to go to court and argue that a Nativity Scene is not really religious and, thus, is a mere cultural symbol that belongs on tax-funded land. Since when is that a victory for traditional faith?

(3) In a perfect world, again in my opinion, every church in town would — if their leaders choose to do so — put up their own creches and the courthouse lawn would not be forced by choirs of lawyers to host warring armies of believers, unbelievers and other tense folks from various camps in between.

So once again, just to be clear, I am praising the Times for actually quoting an authoritative voice that knew enough about church-state law to realize that Santa Monica has not, in this case, banned Christmas. Instead, this story has noted that the government’s leaders have chosen to cease being entangled in Holiday red tape and, well, spaghetti.

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18 responses to “Accurate Holiday wars update from Santa Monica!”

  1. Excellent article. Very well balanced. A question: why did you tag the article for Judaism and not atheism when atheist groups initiated the lawsuit and overwhelmed the lottery? It makes me a little uncomfortable to think that Jews might be unjustly blamed (again) for taking away Christmas when the article suggested nothing more than very peripheral involvement.

  2. I’ve always wondered whether a calendar allowing different groups to put up displays throughout the year – maybe with two or three slots to allow for overlapping holidays – would satisfy equal treatment better than opening to all comers for one month long period. Groups would have to reserve spots ahead of time, and major feast days would of course take preference over non-special time periods (so, a Christian group would not be allowed to fill up all the slots during Ramadan if a Muslim group wanted to put up a display).

    Or maybe that’s just too sensible and pluralistic. :-/ In any case, that’s what I would ask Mr. Haynes if I had the chance.

    I do appreciate it when a piece does make an effort to get at the crux of an issue though!

  3. tmatt – sweet noodly appendages of the Pasta God, it’s still only November and already the Christmas Wars stories are getting cranked out?

    Secondly, I am curious to know if, after their victory (and I’m not criticising the legal ruling, which as you point out, is perfectly fair and consistent in law) the atheists will be turning their attention to the city name. After all, “Santa Monica”? Named after St. Monica, a saint in a particular religious denomination? A name that is on the official stationery and letterheads and civic offices and who knows what all? Paid for with public money? Where oh where is the separation of church and state in this egregious example of promoting one religion over another, never mind promoting religion as such?


    • If journalists were doing their job, Martha, you might find stories that cover atheist positions on a wide range of issues. As it is, they tend to only get covered if they actually file a court case.

      • Raymond, these kinds of cases make me yawn. I am equally unmoved by the plight of those who consider a set of plaster (or plastic) statues is going to mean the set-up of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” is coming next week, and those who say that the Devil is behind all attempts to have said collection of plastic figures banned from public spaces and we are all doomed.

        There’s a good point to be made about government use of religion as propaganda or the imposition of a uniform viewpoint and demands for confessional agreement in order to participate in civil society. Going to court over local councils permitting church groups to set up Christmas displays in public parks is not it – the members of those congregations are also members of the public, after all.

        I’d love to see media stories on how atheist/freethinker groups approach the topic of politicians during election campaigns (particularly presidential campaigns) staging photo-opportunities of themselves speaking to clergy groups and appearing in churches to speak from the pulpit. I’d love if an atheist group said “Hey, what’s up with Candidate Smith or Candidate Jones going to this Bapitpalianisteranic Church for its Sunday service and being photographed up on the altar shaking hands with the robed minister?”

        In fact, I’d love to know if this has happened – I’d be very surprised if someone hadn’t raised an objection to canvassing religious events for votes.

        • Going to court over local councils permitting church groups to set up Christmas displays in public parks is not it

          “Permitting” only “church groups”, actually. From the article: “If the government opens up and creates a limited forum, it can’t practice viewpoint discrimination.”

  4. Sari:
    I should have clicked atheist/agnostic. My bad.
    I clicked Judaism for the simple reason that arguments about Menorahs are often part of the secular Holidaze debates.

    • Nonetheless, the Jewish community was not mentioned as being responsible for this particular piece of litigation. Referencing the article as you did leaves a wrong impression.

  5. I tend to agree with Matt’s 3 points–especially since our culture and society is becoming increasingly decadent, and in many cases depraved. So why create the illusion that our government is somehow nobly Christian in the best sense of that word???
    One thing strikes me as being very odd–how could one goup win 18 out of 21 spaces in a lottery???? Something is fishy about that since statistically isn’t that an impossibility–like Communist elections where approved Soviet candidates get 99% of the vote????

    • The article doesn’t say one group won multiple slots. It says “atheists” (plural) won the slots. If each inividual atheist put in a separate application, that doesn’t seem unlikely.

  6. That was a good article that included more than the goofy stone throwers reporters usually love.
    Matt’s #2 – claiming the Nativity Scene is not religious – is doubly idiotic. The first Nativity scene was presented by St Francis of Assissi in the early 1200s. He’s an Italian Catholic saint. I don’t think they existed in the US until we had more Catholic immigrants in the 1800s. Creches are not only religious they are sectarian.

    [But – Note that Benedict says what you see in the typical nativity scene is actually a myth. This is shocking to the Brits for some reason. ” Christ’s birth date is not the only controversy raised by the Pope in his new book – he also said that contrary to the traditional Nativity scene, there were no oxen, donkeys or other animals at Jesus’s birth.”

    In fact, I remember reading that Christmas was not a big holiday in non-Catholic & non-Orthodox areas of the world until “A Christmas Carol” made it into an acceptible holiday. Maybe a scene from “A Christmas Carol” would be an acceptible secular display for all parties concerned? Then those who want it to be religious could have their feast day at church and in their homes.

    In addition to Santa Monica, there’s San Antonio, Los Angeles, St. Louis, St Paul, and thousands of little towns who took their names from the local Catholic parishes. And shouldn’t Louisiana start calling their geographical units “counties” instead of “parishes”?

    Lots of grievances for atheists to go to court.

    • Lots of grievances for atheists to go to court.

      Assuming those are grievances. As I said before, if there were coverage outside of lawsuits, maybe people would know what atheists think about other topics, and why they don’t sue over them.

    • A few do, most don’t care. Just like some Christians want to put up Nativity scenes and Ten Commandments memorials on public lands, and most don’t care.

      (I’ve tried to answer your and Sari’s questions multiple times and been rejected over and over.)