WASHINGTON, November 20 (By Maria Young for RIA Novosti) - In the latest US courtroom battle between Christians and non-believers, a federal judge in the state of California on Monday denied a bid by a group of churches to force city officials in Santa Monica to allow private holiday displays – including an elaborate Christmas nativity scene – in a public park.
"The atheists won and they will always win unless we get courts to understand how the game is played and this is a game that was played very successfully and they knew it," said attorney William Becker who represents the churches, according to The Associated Press.
Last year Santa Monica shut down a six-decade old tradition of holiday displays in Palisades Park after a dispute between religious groups and atheists.
The city’s auction process was overwhelmed with applications by atheists to set up their own park displays and secular groups won the right to use 18 stalls at the park. The atheist groups put up signs comparing Santa Claus to the devil and referring to religion as a myth.
To settle the dispute, Santa Monica abolished the displays altogether.
Courtroom victories like the ruling Monday are giving strength to the growing number of “unaffiliated” Americans – those who are atheists, agnostics or don’t affiliate with any particular religion – and oppose what they see as a government endorsement of Christianity.
“There are now organizations that are more aggressive about threatening legal actions, and more organized efforts to assert the rights of atheists” said Ken Paulson, president and chief executive officer of the First Amendment Center, a forum for the study of First Amendment issues.
“It’s important to remember that under the First Amendment all Americans are entitled to embrace the faith of their choice or no faith at all, so atheism enjoys the same constitutional protection as other beliefs,” he added.
Just under 20 percent of American adults asked to pick a religious affiliation select “none,” according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center Forum on Religion & Public Life, a Washington-based non-partisan think tank that conducts research and provides information on US and global trends.
That’s up from roughly 15 percent in 2007. An estimated 13 million adults in the US are self-described atheists and agnostics.
“It’s the rise of the ‘nones,’ and that is the fastest growing religions in the country right now,” said Dan Barker, co-president of the non-profit Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which supports the separation of state and church.
“Christianity is shrinking, Judaism is shrinking, Islam is growing a little, Mormonism is growing a little, but ‘none-ism’ is growing a lot,” he said.
His group and others that promote the rights of “unaffiliated” Americans have worked to increase their public profile with billboards including one in New York City’s Times Square, signs on buses, full page ads in the New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as television spots.
The point, he said, is to give a voice to atheists and agnostics who keep their heads down and remain quiet in the face of religious displays in small towns and big cities from coast to coast.
“It’s not like we’re being strung up on fence posts like the gays, or dragged behind pickup trucks, but in many towns the Religious Right can be very ugly,” Barker said in an interview with RIA Novosti.
“We get death threats, and other groups do too. There are the extreme right wingers who are intolerant, so you can imagine how Jews might feel if they go to a football game and there’s a Southern Baptist prayer, or how atheists might feel if they want to run for public office, or open a business.”
“It seems pretty obvious that people who are atheists or humanists or secular humanists are more organized now than they have been in the past,” said David Masci, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center, in interview with RIA Novosti.
“They are more interested in presenting their views to the public, and they want to work to de-stigmatize atheism,” he said.
Usually these groups lose courtroom battles when God is invoked ceremoniously, as in ‘In God We Trust,’ on currency; the phrase “under God,” in the Pledge of Allegiance; or the statement “May God save this Honorable Court,” which begins each session of the US Supreme Court, Masci said.
“Courts have more of a problem, and often are in opposition to situations where it appears the government is promoting religion,” he added.
So displays of faith on public property – like the nativity display at the scenic, beachside Palisades Park in Santa Monica – are usually seen as unconstitutional.
“In many communities, it doesn’t occur to people that anyone would be offended by something like a prayer before a football game, so in many instances, the legal actions are upsetting,” said Paulson.
Barker says his group is making a lot of effort to promote what he calls “none-theism,” so that the views of non-believers and others who believe is the separation of church and state are more widely acknowledged and accepted.
“People are more willing to speak out and say, ‘enough is enough, we are not marginalized, we are not secondary, we are here, we contribute to charity, and we shouldn’t be ignored,’” he said.