SANTA MONICA, Calif. (AP) — Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the three wise men are being crowded out by atheists.
Most of the Christmas nativity scenes that churches had placed in a Santa Monica coastal park for decades have been displaced by non-religious displays — and the churches are crying conspiracy.
The Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, a coalition of 13 churches, and the Santa Monica Police Officers Association, has traditionally claimed 14 of the 21 display spaces, which are vandal-proof, cage-like areas surrounded by chain-link fencing.
The coalition displays have featured life-size depictions of the story of the birth of Jesus Christ.
But atheists got all but three of the spaces this year because of a new lottery system. The coalition got two spots to display Jesus, Mary and the wise men. The third went to Isaac Levitansky of Chabad Channukah Menorah.
Adding to the loss, the atheists have used only three of the display areas to promote their message.
One reads: "Religions are all alike — founded upon fables and mythologies. — Thomas Jefferson."
"Happy Solstice," reads another.
And a display with photographs depicting King Neptune, Jesus Christ, Santa Claus and Satan reads, "Million Americans know MYTHS when they see them. What myths do you see? American Atheists. Since 1963. athiests.org."
"Our belief is that these new applicants have been working together 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 a coalition of the city's churches.
The Santa Monica Daily Press (http://bit.ly/tr8h1T ) reported that churches had little or no competition for the spaces during the past 57 years. This year, 13 people bid for spaces, prompting City Hall to use a random lottery system to allot the spots.
Two individuals got 18 spaces. One person can request a maximum of nine.
Damon Vix is behind the effort to allocate the spaces by lottery.
Last year, he put up a sign with the Thomas Jefferson quote and selections on U.S. Supreme Court decisions about the importance of separating church and state.
Vix now helps other atheists acquire the park spaces, including American Atheists Inc. and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Secularists feel a need to be more vocal and express their civil rights, he said.
"For 60 years, it's almost exclusively been the point of view of Christians putting up nativity scenes for a whole city block," Vix said.
Jameson pushed the city to give local preference in awarding the spaces. Vix doesn't live in Santa Monica.
City Attorney Marsha Moutrie wrote, however, that the Christmas displays cross the boundary into First Amendment free speech rights, which know no geographical boundaries.
"Everyone has equal rights to use the streets and parks for expressive activities, irrespective of residency," Moutrie wrote.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.