If it didn't have such serious implications for the future of religious freedom in America, the recent Nativity scene brouhaha in Santa Monica, California would almost be comically absurd – reminiscent, perhaps, of a scene right out of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
For nearly six decades, a tableaux of life-size Christmas Nativity scene displays charmed visitors in "The City of the Christmas Story" – a vision of Joan Wilcoxon, an actress and wife of a Paramount Studios producer. The scenes, showcasing key moments in the Nativity narrative, became a popular Santa Monica tradition.
In recent years, though, controversy erupted over the displays at Palisades Park on coastal bluffs along Ocean Avenue – with atheists submitting applications to erect their own exhibits featuring anti-religious and secular messages.
A few years ago, Freedom from Religion Foundation member Damon Vix put up a sign quoting Thomas Jefferson: "Religions are all alike – founded on fables and mythologies." The flip side of the sign read, "Happy Solstice." In 2011, Vix recruited a "local coalition" of atheists to apply for display places and they won 18 of 21 spaces as part of a controversial lottery system.
Earlier this year, the Santa Monica City Council – hoping to defuse the circus-like atmosphere surrounding the whole debacle - voted to bar the park displays.
In response, the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee sued in federal court seeking to restore the Christmas tradition – drawing national attention.
In early November, the judge denied the committee's request to allow the exhibition of the Nativity scene at the park. Then, on Nov. 29, U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins issued an order granting the city's motion requesting dismissal of the lawsuit.
"Regardless of whether the Nativity tradition will live on due to the generosity of private property owners, the Constitution requires that public parks be treated as forums open to everyone, including those who wish to celebrate the religious meaning of Christmas," says William Becker, an attorney for the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee. "The Grinch hasn't stolen Christmas. He has stolen our liberty. That's something that should concern everyone."
Gary Cass, founder of the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission, says the Nativity display was "removed simply due to the atheist's hecklers veto."
"They have effectively shut down our First Amendment liberty simply because they are offended by the message," Cass says. "They are so anti-Christian, they are willing to forfeit everyone's religious rights and liberties rather than have the historical purpose for Christmas displayed in the park."
Mat Staver, founder and chief executive officer of Liberty Counsel, says the controversy is a microcosm of the larger "war on Christmas."
"It's a very unfortunate situation to remove the Nativity," Staver says. "It's unnecessary and I think it's absurd to not acknowledge Christmas when it is, by the way, a federal and state holiday. I would advise Americans to use common sense and acknowledge our federal and state holiday known as Christmas. It's celebrated worldwide."
The controversy over the Nativity display in Santa Monica is a harbinger of what "activist atheists" have planned for the rest of the nation, says Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice.
"What the Freedom from Religion Foundation is doing is pushing the boundaries," Sekulow says. "Their goal is to make it where there is no religion at all, or irreligion, as they call it – to take it all out. The goal of these organizations is to make us a religious-free country when it comes to the public sphere – whether it's the schools singing Christmas songs, which they have to admit they are allowed to do, or the National Day of Prayer, which they think is unconstitutional – even though it's ecumenical – and, of course, Christmas displays."
While the law and legal precedents are not on their side, Sekulow says groups like the FFRF are employing a new fear-based strategy designed to intimidate cities like Santa Monica into giving up on celebrating Christmas.
"This is a new kind of war on Christmas," Sekulow says. "I don't think this is the same war on Christmas from a decade ago. The (FFRF) is the loudest group and they are a growing group. They are becoming more radical and they have a serious disdain specifically for the Christian faith – both the Protestant and Catholic faiths.
"That's their target. It's not radical Islam. They are talking about the cross being displayed in the United States of America. Their ultimate goal is to eradicate all religion and their top priority is eradicating the Christian faith."
The fracas in Santa Monica is part of what is known as the "war on Christmas" – a movement to erase Christmas from the public square. The battle began – somewhat innocuously – about a decade ago when some stores required their employees to say things like "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."
Since then, the war against Christmas has continued with senior living centers banning residents from singing Christmas carols, public schools seeking to ban students from wearing Christmas colors of red and green, school officials censoring religious words from Christmas carols, companies renaming Christmas trees as "holiday trees" and Christmas parades renamed as "holiday" parades.
This Christmas season, like many in recent years, has no paucity of arguably ridiculous assaults on the day celebrating Christ's birth.
Last month, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee announced he would not use the word "Christmas" to describe the evergreen tree decorated to celebrate December 25. Originally, the governor's office canceled the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony after a controversy last year when he refused to acknowledge "Christmas" during the tree lighting ceremony. Chafee's spokeswoman said the governor believes the word "holiday" is more inclusive.
Exhibiting no shame, the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers recently lodged a complaint with the Little Rock School District because Terry Elementary School is providing a voluntary opportunity for students to attend a matinee production of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" being staged at a local church on Dec. 14, according to the Alliance Defending Freedom. The alliance sent a letter to the school district to encourage them to ignore the atheist group's complaints.
"Schools should not have to think twice about whether they can allow students to watch a classic Christmas production simply because a Bible verse is mentioned in it," ADF legal counsel Matt Sharp says. " ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas' has become an iconic Christmas story and tradition. Are atheist groups going to start demanding that students be blocked from attending other classic productions just because they contain religious references? An overwhelming majority of Americans agree that it's okay to celebrate Christmas in schools and in the public square."
While some "grinches" try to secularize Christmas and remove any mention of Christ from Christmas, an overwhelming majority of Americans still celebrate Christmas, according to Liberty Counsel.
A 2010 Gallup poll found 95 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas. According to Rassmusen Reports, 70 percent prefer "Merry Christmas" to "Happy Holidays" on store signs and 79 percent of Americans say religious holidays should be celebrated in public schools.
Public schools, Staver says, are not religion-free zones.
Classroom discussion of the religious aspects of the holidays is permissible, Staver says. A holiday display in a classroom may include a Nativity scene or other religious imagery, so long as the context also includes secular symbols. A choral performance may include religious songs. Indeed, the majority of the songs may be religious, so long as the performance also includes secular holiday songs.
The ACLJ, Liberty Counsel, the Pacific Justice Institute, the ADF and other organizations offer a variety of resources to help parents, pastors, government and school officials and business owners understand that the U.S. Constitution and the law provide wide latitude in celebrating Christmas in all areas of the public square. These organizations also provide legal assistance to those who receive threatening letters from the FFRF, ACLU and similar organizations.
Some of these organizations have become more aggressive, Sekulow says, in their campaign to "take religion out of society."
"It's not just happening in the Christmas realm," Sekulow says. "It's happening with prayers at city council meetings, with city logos that have been around for a 100 years and have a cross on them. But many times, these are cases you can fight. They seem to pick on small towns and cities that they are hoping will roll over because the legal precedents are not on their side."
But Sekulow is concerned if "people stop fighting back" it could have a significant impact on not only the freedom to celebrate Christmas in the future, but religious liberty on a broader scale.
"They have got to remember that if you roll over now you are going to be setting precedent for the future," Sekulow says. "That is (the atheists) ultimate goal. Right now, if they can get you just to quit and not do it and then a few years later they will start using these legal precedents set by the U.S. Supreme Court as we get changes on the Supreme Court."
Staver says if Christians take Christmas for granted and don't fight these atheists groups "we won't be able to celebrate Christmas anymore."
"It will be completely changed," Staver says. "It's absurd when it comes to the point where a Christmas tree is no longer called a Christmas tree. I think it sends a message that every other holiday is okay, but not Christmas. I think it's important for pastors to educate people about the importance of Christmas and being proactive in this fight – recognizing Christmas is not just for our generation but for future generations."