SANTA MONICA (CBS) — Santa Monica church leaders are outraged after an atheist group displaced them this year from their annual Christmas story display sites at a city park overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Monica Pier.
For the past 57 years, a coalition of 13 churches and the Santa Monica Police Officers Association have sponsored a seasonal display in Palisades Park of 14 dioramas depicting the nativity story.
This year, the group was only permitted to erect three of its displays.
The City of Santa Monica held a lottery for the first time this fall to allocate the temporary spaces in the city park, when 13 individuals applied for the available holiday display sites.
One space went to a Jewish organization, two went to churches, and 18 more were awarded to individuals whose stated intentions were "solstice greetings."
Now the church group is angry that their crèches remain in storage, while most of the spots awarded to atheists sit vacant.
"Our belief is that these new applicants have been working to displace and push out the nativity scenes from the park, rather than erecting a full display of their own," said Hunter Jameson, a spokesman for the churches, in an interview with the Santa Monica Daily Press.
One spot not awarded to the coalition displays a "Happy Solstice" sign, situated under a protective cage. Damon Vix helped organize the atheists' effort, and is displaying a quote from Thomas Jefferson at his space: "Religions are all alike — founded upon fables and mythologies."
He told the Santa Monica Lookout newspaper "there is a growing secular community in this country that has kept quiet too long," and said religious displays should be on church property.
"This has been a city tradition for nearly 60 years," Jameson told the Santa Monica Lookout newspaper. "These new groups applying for permits aren't even Santa Monica residents, and they are just derogatory to organized religions."
A deputy city attorney said the government cannot differentiate between applicants for the coveted spaces, and cannot give preference to Santa Monica residents for space used for public speech.
Most of the holiday display spaces awarded to the outside applicants are now vacant grassy areas.
Religious leaders are calling for church bells across Santa Monica to be rung at 3 p.m. Sunday to protest their lack of access to the scenic real estate where the traditional crèches and other religious dioramas have traditionally been displayed.
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