Peace and goodwill are in short supply in Santa Monica this festive season, after a small but determined group of atheists placed the local streets on the front line of their "war" against Christmas.
Church leaders in the seaside enclave of West Los Angeles have expressed a mixture of sadness and outrage after civic space in which they have traditionally built life-size nativity scenes was taken over by non-believers.
Since the 1950s, religious groups have been recreating tableaux of Mary and Joseph, along with various wise men and shepherds, at Palisades Park, a cliff-top promenade overlooking Santa Monica's famous beaches and pier.
This year, however, the council decided to introduce a lottery system for deciding which organisations decorated the 21 available sites. And by a quirk of fate, no less than 18 of them ended up being allocated to atheist groups.
As a result, parts of the supposedly festive park now resemble an Occupy Wall Street encampment. Fifteen spaces have been surrounded by security fence and left empty, while three contain banners attempting to persuade passers-by that there is no God. Two are devoted to traditional nativity scenes, while one has been decorated by a Jewish group.
News crews flocked to the scene yesterday. Drawing attention was a display containing images of Jesus, Satan, and Santa Claus with the slogan: "37 million Americans know a myth when they see one... What myths do you see?"
Another contains a quote by Thomas Jefferson: "Religions are all alike – founded upon fables and mythologies." A third consists of a hand-painted billboard proclaiming "Happy Solstice".
The council explained that 13 people had applied for display slots. Two of the successful applicants had asked for nine spaces, the maximum permitted, and under the rules of the lottery, had to be granted their full allocation. Both were campaigning atheists.
One of the duo, Damon Vix, explained: "There is a growing secular community in this country which has kept quiet too long." The other, Bobbie Kirkhart, said: "For many years, atheists were excluded from city-subsidised displays. Now, finally, atheists have an equal chance. Christians who believe their god is concerned about such things might take note of the extraordinary luck the atheist lottery winners have enjoyed."
Mr Kirkhart's organisation, Athiests United, intends to use one of its nativity spaces to display an image of a Darwin Fish wearing a Santa hat, along with the slogan: "Reason's Greetings!"
Local congregations aren't laughing. Hunter Jameson, a spokesman for their Nativity Scenes Committee, said: "By trying to push the nativity scene out of the park and silence us, these people are infringing on our freedom and First Amendment rights."
While he had no objection to atheists being allocated space in the park, he said the city council should not allow them to hijack almost all of it.Reuse content