It seems every Christmas season there is another drama involving Nativity displays, atheists up in arms about said displays and a local government and court system being forced to sort the whole thing out. However, this year’s debacle in Santa Monica is truly unique.
In Palisades Park, the city regularly grants the use of public booths for seasonal displays. For the past 59 years, a group of local churches has put up a Nativity display each Christmas. Three years ago, a sole member of the American Atheists was granted a booth and set up signs decrying religion. He upped the ante last year, recruiting a number of fellow atheists to apply for booths, thus pushing the demand well beyond the supply. The city used a lottery system to assign spots.
Due to the glut of atheist applications, they won 18 of the 21 spots. One went to a Jewish group, leaving only two for the usually 14-booth Nativity display. The atheists used only half of their booths, putting up more anti-religion signs and leaving the other spots empty. Most of the signs were vandalized.
This June, citing expenses related to permits and the lottery system, the City of Santa Monica has banned all unattended public displays in the park. In response, the group of churches sued the city and also asked that their displays be allowed this year while the case is decided. A federal court denied them, handing the atheists a decided victory.
Though taking a new form, this whole debacle amounts to an assault on our First Amendment rights. Even more frightening, it is an assault waged not by the government, but by our fellow citizens. For the short term, Santa Monica has done all it can to stop the controversy and the vandalism without stirring up another larger controversy. However, the government is not yet off the hook. It has a Constitutional duty to protect the rights of all citizens and this obviously includes the right to religion and speech. The government must reign in the actions of these atheists, not because Christians take priority, but because the atheists’ goal was clearly not to practice their speech and “religion,” but to silence the speech and religion of others.
To accomplish this, the city has a number of options. Since the atheist had to recruit others to submit the applications, it is clear he represents a very small minority attempting to silence a majority. Thus, they clearly cannot snatch up so many booths and be expected to put up displays with the aesthetic appeal of the Nativity displays in each one.
The spaces they did use contained little more than signs, some of these modest even by sign standards. To counter this, the city could set a universal standard of artistic quality for a display to remain in its place in the park. Booths that do not meet this standard or that are left empty can be reclaimed and given to new applicants.
Another more complicated proposal would involve turning to the people themselves. If the almost 60 year tradition is truly valued by those in the community, they would hardly let a disgruntled minority tear it down. I say this method is complicated because the use of a public majority must be used cautiously. At any time in history, the use of a majority to empower the rights of all has bordered the use of the same for the suppression of minority rights. If the public is used, standards must be laid down so it is obvious that the atheists aren’t being unconstitutionally silenced as well.
Above any governmental action, we Christians must answer the call to love our neighbors as ourselves, especially in this season. This requires that we also display a public respect for atheists and their views, regardless of what respect we get in return. However, we must never confuse respect with submission.
We are perfectly justified in being angry in situations like this and I believe we have a responsibility to act against this kind of injustice through Constitutionally mandated avenues. At the same time, I am ashamed of my fellow Christians who felt the need to vandalize the atheists’ signs in Santa Monica. Not only is this disrespectful, but it is also counterintuitive. As someone with deeply held beliefs, I know vandalism and hostility would only harden my resolve.
Atheists have a long history of being persecuted, shunned and mistreated, even in our day and age. It is important we grasp what this has done to their willingness to listen and understand. If we want to win them over and prevent future legal battles like this one, why not try a little respect?