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Author John Zerolnick is research director for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. A slightly different version of his post appeared here.

People often get pretty touchy this time of year.  Maybe it’s having to go to the mall.  Maybe it’s the stress of dealing with family.  Maybe it’s thinking about all those broken resolutions from a year ago.  But whatever the reason, Americans tend to lash out at each other more than usual.

A perennial complaint has to do with the so-called “War on Christmas.”  Showing that my own people don’t have a monopoly on a persecution complex, some Christian groups are very quick to declare themselves under attack.  And to be sure, our on-again-off-again national flirtation with inclusivity does lead many people to say things like “Happy Holidays.”  (I know, how hateful!)

Many of these groups and individuals base their indignation on the “fact” that this is a Christian nation.  Of course, we are not a Christian nation, though the Judeo-Christian tradition informed many of our earliest values and laws.  Really, what these people are saying is that they want us to (explicitly) be a Christian nation.  And while I couldn’t disagree more, I think that this is a more or less intellectually honest position.

Contrast this with the latest flap out of Santa Monica.  For years, Christians have staged Nativity scenes in a public park in that city.  Recently, other groups have been interested in staging their own scenes, and so the city initiated a lottery system to dole out the limited number of spaces.  Naturally, this meant that the Christian monopoly on public land ended, and they now have to share the space.  The Christians are understandably bummed out.

But listen to this analysis by Hunter Jameson, one of the Nativity boosters: “By trying to push the Nativity scene out of the park and silence us, these people are infringing on our freedom and First Amendment rights.”  Now we’re in tricky territory: rights infringed upon!  Can this be the case?

Of course not.

In fact, this response shows a dangerous misunderstanding of the nature of the First Amendment.  The First Amendment does not guarantee everyone the right to public land to express their own idiosyncratic religious beliefs.  We don’t have nearly enough land for that, and besides, I’m not sure how I’d build a diorama of an octopus.

The first amendment does guarantee that government does not favor one religion over another.  And by setting up a lottery system for access to scarce public land, the city of Santa Monica has quite elegantly lived up to both the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment.

I’m not sure if Jameson, the offended Santa Monica Christian, is speaking disingenuously or if he is truly confused about how the First Amendment works, but speaking of infringed-upon rights is dangerous stuff, and we’d all do well to be clear about the issue.  Christians aren’t the only ones with these rights, nor are their rights more important than the rights of the atheists who are also vying for the land.  Somehow, Jameson’s discussion of how “these people” are infringing upon “our freedom” reminds me of George Carlin’s classic explanation of the difference between “my stuff” and “your shit.”

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Comment Preferences

  •  His argument there is lame (0+ / 0-)

    but as a resident of Santa Monica who was born here I can also say that I was sad to see this happen. I don't believe that Jesus is God, or that anyone is, but those scenes have been a part of my Christmas for as long as I can remember. It's a tradition that goes back almost 60 years.

    The atheists are using their spaces to mock Christians. I would have far less of a problem if they did some sort of winter solsitce theme but instead they do things like this:

    Damon Vix, an atheist, had a display last year that included a quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson: "Religions are all alike -- founded on fables and mythologies." And this year, he told the Santa Monica Daily Press that he encouraged other atheists to join him.

    I may not believe in religion but I do believe in the true message of Christmas. The message of hope, renewal, unity and peace is a powerful message and the atheists could have created their own message like that but instead chose to mock people.

    In my view that makes them no better than the Christianists who demand that everyone celebrate Christmas the way they think it should be celebrated.

    I was Rambo in the disco/ I was shootin' to the beat/ When they burned me in effigy My vacation was complete. Neil Young

    by Mike S on Tue Dec 20, 2011 at 10:58:35 AM PST

    •  you truly do not seem to celebrate the first (0+ / 0-)

      amendment.  If your religion's tenants and ideas can survive in the marketplace of ideas, then they do not need protection from contrasting ideas.  if they cannot survive expression of something Jefferson said nearly 200 years ago, then they do not deserve to survive.

      Just becasuse public land was used to celebrate  your particular religion exclusively for many years neither makes it right, nor makes it palatable to others with other religions or views.  Can you not understand that others may feel just a little excluded by the public property being used exclusively for your sect?

      The problem is not those mean atheists who refuse to put up a display which espouses the same platitudes as your displays- the problem is in the public land being used for proseletyzing for a particular religion.

      Can you apperciate that arguing that the land should be given to your religion in perpetuity for the advertising of your religion's myths some of which may be offensive to others is absolutely no different from the enshrinement of the 10 commandments in court houses or the flying of the Confederate flag over Sate houses?

      You see it as a simple holiday tradition - How could anyone be offended by a manger scene?- others are permitted to see it otherwise. They are not being mean spirited- they are being Americans, whose opinions are no less protected than yours.

      As my father used to say,"We have the best government money can buy."

      by BPARTR on Tue Dec 20, 2011 at 02:02:34 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  As an atheist, I certainly (0+ / 0-)

        believe in the Winter Solstice, but I neither celebrate it nor proseletyze that other should do so.  You seem to equate athesists with Northern European pagans.  The reasonable response to the presentation of the Christian virgin birth myth is to argue against it- not to propose some other pagan ritual.

        As my father used to say,"We have the best government money can buy."

        by BPARTR on Tue Dec 20, 2011 at 02:05:59 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  I checked it out today. (0+ / 0-)

        You have a right to be an asshole but it doesn't mean it's right. He didn't use his space for anything other than calling people who believe in any sort of religion idiots. It's pretty pathetic.

        That you don't see why this is pathetic says a lot about you. There isn't a hair's width difference between what is being shown there and what people like Randall Terry, Jim DeMint and the rest of the militant Christianists do every day.

        Like I said before. Everyone has a right to be an asshole. But there is a select group of people who relish the use of that right. They seem pretty between well the left and the right on the subject of religion.

        I was Rambo in the disco/ I was shootin' to the beat/ When they burned me in effigy My vacation was complete. Neil Young

        by Mike S on Tue Dec 20, 2011 at 05:53:56 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  So it's okay for religious people to call (0+ / 0-)

          athiests wrong but not visa versa then?  Because this is exactly what you're advocating for when you try to pretend that pro-religious messages are somehow less rude than anti-religious ones.

          I'm an atheist.  Every time someone says Jesus is the son of a god, they're saying I'm wrong.  Every time someone says their god is the source of morality, they are telling me both that I'm wrong and that I'm a bad person.  Every religious message is making the claim that atheists are wrong.  I'm in favor of a level playing field in the marketplace of ideas - let them say those things if I also get to say the opposite.  Your position that public land is usable by one side and not the other is NOT a level playing field.  Your attempts to try to make it seem as such are laughable.

          •  You also don't seem to be (0+ / 0-)

            able to differentiate between someone saying "you're wrong" and someone insulting that person.  You seem to be saying that in order to avoid insult, one must not criticize a person's position.  Politeness should never be allowed to be used as a protective shield for bullshit peddlers.

          •  You are either very dumb (0+ / 0-)

            or are missing my point on purpose.

            That shouldn't surprise me since you are simply the flip side of the Christianist coin.

            I was Rambo in the disco/ I was shootin' to the beat/ When they burned me in effigy My vacation was complete. Neil Young

            by Mike S on Thu Dec 22, 2011 at 11:13:34 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  So are you going to actually make a point (0+ / 0-)

              or are you going to just make more unsupported vague insults?  (By the way, your hypocrisy on that isn't helping your case.  Are you capable of accusing others of being insulting without being more of an insulting ass yourself?)

              •  hahahahahahhahaahhahha (0+ / 0-)

                Whine that someone insults you after taking such a firm stand on the 1st Amendment's right to insult?

                I made my point upthread and you chose to ignore it, very much like the people on the other side of your coin do every time.

                Look, I get it. There are idiots on the right who are whining about a "war on Christmas" and will demand that the war be won by the Christians.

                Luckilly for us we have an equally militant group that will fight that war for us whether we want them to or not. It's like looking in a funhouse mirror and seeing your reflection but it's just you with a different look.

                Watch FOX News and take a very close look. You will see that very same reflection if you look hard enough.

                I was Rambo in the disco/ I was shootin' to the beat/ When they burned me in effigy My vacation was complete. Neil Young

                by Mike S on Thu Dec 22, 2011 at 01:11:08 PM PST

                [ Parent ]

            •  By the way, being a liar doesn't help you either. (0+ / 0-)

              Your attempt to pretend that an atheist merely stating their position "that religions are founded on fables and mythologies" is equal to fundamentalists who call for bigoted political actions shows your bias.  There is nothing about the message "Religions are founded on fables and mythologies" that is any more rude or insulting than the message "God exists and Jesus is his son".  That when the pro-religious message showed up, you were fine with it and only complain when it goes further to the point where there are individual politicians turn it into a political platform, yet when the anti-religious message showed up, you equated it to politicians who turn religion into a political platform, and did not equate it to the mere spreading of the religious message (which you are demonstrably okay with) is why your bias is obvious.

              For the pro-religious, you are okay with them stating their position so long as it's not as far as those fundies who are starting to advocate actions against the unreligious.  For the anti-religious, you do not extend the same courtesy.  For us, you're not even letting us state the position without accusing us of being identical to the religious right (who have political power and USE IT to try to enforce their view.)

              You have a clear example here in this nativity scene.  The religious scene espousing the alleged correctness of their view gives you warm fuzzies.  The atheist message espousing the opposite view makes you think "fundies" even though it is NOT any more forceful or rude.  You are not judging correctly here.

              •  heh (0+ / 0-)

                If you think my opinion makes me a liar then there can hardly be more proof that you are an idiot.

                It's a shame that this time of the year brings out the worst in so many people, both religious and anti-religious alike.

                I was Rambo in the disco/ I was shootin' to the beat/ When they burned me in effigy My vacation was complete. Neil Young

                by Mike S on Thu Dec 22, 2011 at 01:38:59 PM PST

                [ Parent ]

      •  Not exactly the same problem I have with it. (0+ / 0-)

        When you said:

        Can you not understand that others may feel just a little excluded by the public property being used exclusively for your sect?

        I'd have to say I don't quite agree with you that this is the big problem.  Being insulted or feeling "excluded" is not what pisses me off about this stuff, as an atheist.  It's that they are concentrated efforts to sell the lie that ours is a religious government - that is what pisses me off.  I don't mind that the money had "In god we trust" added to it until people started saying "see, that proves we're a Christian nation", and then it started to irk me that was there.  I don't mind that the pledge of allegiance to the flag had "under god" added to it until people started saying , "see that proves we're a Christian nation" and then is started to irk me that it was there.  I didn't mind that Judge Moore wanted to put up a ten commandments sculpture, until I found out that he wanted it not in his office, but in the center of the court building, with the placard "the foundation of our nations' laws".  THEN i bothered me because it's clear that the purpose was yet again  to sell the lie that we are a theocracy.

        Feeling "excluded" does not bother me nearly as much as the attempts to make us look like a theocracy.  Feeling excluded happens anyway regardless of whether the displays are on private or public land.  What makes the use of public land for them different from using private land for them is that it furthers the theocrats' attempts to falsify history by claiming our nation is Christian by trying to make Christianity an official government activity.

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