Monday 19 February 2018

'Baywatch' town scraps its public Nativity scene

Rory Carroll

IT was named after an early Christian saint but to those aghast at its liberal ways Santa Monica is better known as Soviet Monica, a city beyond comprehension, decency and now, after its latest outrage, forgiveness.

This California playground of Pacific surf, sunshine and sleek boutiques has, if you believe one side of the argument, just plunged a dagger into Christmas, gutted tradition and pushed America down a slippery slope to godlessness.

If you believe the other side, Santa Monica has upheld the values of the founding fathers, rebuffed a plot to impose theocracy and scored a victory for reason.

The stage for this latest battle in the US culture wars is Palisades Park, a scenic patch of palm trees on a bluff overlooking beaches where Baywatch was filmed. Every Christmas for more than 50 years, the park hosted a life-sized Nativity display, filling a block with a 14-scene tableau which included crib, Wise Men and livestock.

This year, however, it will remain empty following a campaign by atheist activists who objected to a religious display on public property. Nativities will be confined to churches and private property from now on.

"It's a form of asymmetric warfare," said William Becker, a lawyer who represented the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee in its losing battle with the city council.

He accused "liberal Irish Democrats" and other leftwing factions on the council of buckling following similar campaigns in other states against crucifixes and prayer in public places.

"We're going down the slippery slope," he said.

The atheist campaign began several years ago when Damon Vix, a member of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, successfully lobbied for the right to mount his own booth in the park alongside the Nativity.

He erected signs which called religions fables, proclaimed "happy solstice" and quoted the founding fathers' arguments for separation of church and state.

Atheists ramped up the campaign last year with multiple booths which mocked religion, including a supposed homage to the "Pastafarian" religion complete with its Flying Spaghetti Monster deity. The displays caused uproar.

The atheists were ready to create even more rumpus this year after nabbing most booths in a first-come, first-serve system, prompting the council to ban all displays.

"It became a war in the park. It was getting out of control," said Bob Holbrook, a council member.

Siding with one group against the other would have opened the door to litigation, he said. "We get sued about twice a week. Brown squirrels, pigeons, trees – for every special interest, we've got a group," he said.

As a Christian, Holbrook said he felt "extremely hurt" that he and other councillors had been compared to Pontius Pilate.

Yibin Shen, the deputy city attorney, said the Palisades Park ordinance was "content neutral legislation".

Vix, who started it all, said he was very happy. "It was time to take a stand. This was a blatant violation of the separation of church and state, the principle our country was built on," he said.

© Observer

Sunday Independent

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