A federal judge on Monday denied a Christian group’s bid for a preliminary injunction to force Santa Monica to allow the display of a Nativity Scene — leading critics to fear the ruling could jeopardize religious liberty.
U.S. District Court Judge Audrey Collins formalized an earlier tentative ruling during a hearing.
William Becker, the attorney for the Christian group, told Fox News that it was an “extraordinary ruling.”
“The next step will be for them to stop any religious speech at all in a public park — whether it’s singing hymns or merely handing out leaflets or merely discussing religion,” he said. “One day it will all be banned.”
Christmastime Nativity scenes had been erected in Palisades Park for decades. Last year, atheists overwhelmed the city’s auction process for display sites, winning 18 of 21 slots and triggering a bitter dispute. The city then banned private, unattended displays at the park.
Santa Monica officials snuffed the city’s holiday tradition this year rather than referee the religious rumble, prompting churches that have set up a 14-scene Christian diorama to sue over freedom of speech claims.
“It’s a sad, sad commentary on the attitudes of the day that a nearly 60-year-old Christmas tradition is now having to hunt for a home, something like our savior had to hunt for a place to be born because the world was not interested,” Hunter Jameson, head of the nonprofit Santa Monica Nativity Scene Committee, said in advance of the hearing.
The atheists were not parties to the legal case. Their role outside court highlights a tactical shift as atheists evolve into a vocal minority eager to get their non-beliefs into the public square as never before.
National atheist groups earlier this year took out full-page newspaper ads and hundreds of TV spots in response to Catholic bishops’ activism around women’s health care issues and are gearing up to battle for their own space alongside public Christmas displays in small towns across America this season.
“In recent years, the tactic of many in the atheist community has been, if you can’t beat them, join them,” said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and director of the Newseum’s Religious Freedom Education Project in Washington. “If these church groups insist that these public spaces are going to be dominated by a Christian message, we’ll just get in the game — and that changes everything.”
In the past, atheists primarily fought to uphold the separation of church and state through the courts. The change underscores the conviction held by many nonbelievers that their views are gaining a foothold, especially among young adults.
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a study last month that found 20 percent of Americans say they have no religious affiliation, an increase from 15 percent in the past five years. Atheists took heart from the report, although Pew researchers stressed that the category also encompassed majorities of people who said they believed in God but had no ties with organized religion and people who consider themselves “spiritual” but not “religious.”
“We’re at the bottom of the totem pole socially, but we have muscle and we’re flexing it,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation. “Ignore our numbers at your peril.”
With reporting from Associated Press
Todd is author of Dispatches From Bitter America – Stories of a Gun-toting, Chicken-Eating, Bible-Clinging American. The book is endorsed by Sarah Palin, Mark Levin and Sean Hannity. Click here to get your copy.