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Angry atheists? What about the angry Christians? [Blowback]

December 12, 2012|By Stuart Bechman
  • A woman, seen here in December 2011, walks past two of the Nativity displays that for 60 years had been put up in Palisades Park in Santa Monica.
A woman, seen here in December 2011, walks past two of the Nativity displays… (Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated…)

Rabbi Michael Gotlieb, in his Dec. 11 Times Op-Ed article, "Threatened by faith in Santa Monica," decries efforts to remove Christian Nativity displays from a publicly owned oceanfront park in Santa Monica as being driven by an “unprecedented, angry form of atheism.” Gotlieb's anger is misplaced and says more about the his religious prejudices than of the situation.

Santa Monica, a city of only 8.4 square miles, is home to scores of Christian churches with their own land and buildings. One has to ask why, with so many spaces seemingly available, Gotlieb feels that the city should make additional space available to accommodate the promotion of that faith.

Gotlieb makes the obvious point that the city itself bears the name of a religious saint -- with a statue of its namesake only a short distance away from the park where the dioramas were displayed -- as additional justification for the taxpayer-subsidized promotion. But in a religiously diverse and pluralistic society, the amount of Christian saturation in the city would actually seem an argument for it to take extraordinary measures to ensure that other faiths and worldviews are not drowned out.

Which is arguably what the city did in implementing its lottery system. And it worked exactly as intended: not to guarantee atheists visibility but to give all interested parties an equal chance to put up their displays in the public park. Gotlieb may have been offended by the messages of the atheists who won slots, but based on public comments made during City Council discussions, plenty were equally offended by the dioramas populated with tacky mannequins that blocked one of the city’s most majestic views of the ocean. In religion, one man's tradition is another's abomination.

One could persuasively argue that "angry Christians" fueled this controversy, with a lawsuit filed by a Christian legal firm demanding that the city resume its preferential treatment of Christianity each winter. Scores of local Christian churches were unwilling to host the displays on their own property and objected to being on the losing end for one year of a fair and impartial allocation system. Indeed, one might conclude that it is the Christians, not the atheists, who seem to insist on being unreasonable and militant in reaction to being held to the same standard as other beliefs.

Of course, it is unfair to tar all members of any group with a single brush, whether Christian, atheist or Jew. Not all Christians supported the annual displays, and Gotlieb may find fellow Jews and even atheists who share his views. But the city did its best to balance its responsibility to the U.S. Constitution and the desires of all the interests in the issue. It made the best of the few choices available.

Despite the drama, the dioramas continue to be on display this season on private property and without controversy. The fact that it took the display sponsors more than 60 years and a fair amount of wailing to accept a legal and perfectly reasonable accommodation of its religious views says volumes about the power of the religious lobby in this country, and the difficulty that our government officials have in standing up to that power to guarantee all Americans' freedom of conscience. I have only the highest admiration for the Santa Monica City Council in fulfilling its constitutional duty and supporting the rights of all residents, not just the loud Christian ones.

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Stuart Bechman chairs the Greater Los Angeles chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

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