By Gel Santos Relos
(My Asian Journal Column Article November 24, 2012)
ONE of the rituals many Fil-Am families enjoy doing during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend is putting up a Christmas tree and decorations, for that early Christmas feeling.
Our friends and family, business establishments, public parks and places back home in the Philippines do that even earlier – some even as early as September (the start of the “Ber” months). The Christmas holidays, after all, is longer and more fun in the Philippines!
That is why we try to capture the same spirit here in America, and are happy to participate in Simbang Gabi andPaskong Pilipino gatherings. We also love going to places that feature our favorite Christian displays, like theBelen, which showcases the nativity scene. For Christians, images like this put “Christ” back in the Christmas celebration.
But this is also precisely the reason why this Belen (a life-sized, 14-booth Nativity display of Holy Family -- Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph -- the three kings, shepherds, and angels) has no room in a Santa Monica park in the Los Angeles area. It created quite a stir in the Christian community, including Filipinos.
US District Judge Audrey B. Collins rejected a motion from the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee to allow the religious display this season, while their lawsuit plays out against the city.
Christians said this decision effectively ends a 60-year Nativity tradition, “after atheists stole the show with anti-God messages.”
They were dismayed that the city decided to ban it rather than do measures to referee this messy religious dispute that began three years ago, when atheists first set up their anti-God message alongside the Christmas diorama.
As Balitang America reported, Collins explained the rationale of her decision: “the city was within its constitutional right to eliminate the exemption that had allowed the Nativity at the oceanfront Palisades Park because the change affected all comers — from Christians, to Jews, to atheists — and provided other avenues for public religious speech.”
Judge Collins pointed out that the decision was not meant to squash religious speech, but because “they were becoming a drain on city resources, destroying the turf and obstructing ocean views.”
Note that in America, public places like public parks are maintained and funded by taxpayers' money. Taxpayers include people of all faith, even those who do not have faith in any God, like the atheists.
The Associated Press reported that the issue in Santa Monica between Christians and Atheists began in 2009, when atheist Damon Vix applied for and was granted a booth in Palisades Park, alongside the story of Jesus Christ’s birth.
Vix reportedly hung a simple sign that quoted Thomas Jefferson: “Religions are all alike — founded on fables and mythologies.” The other side of that sign read, “Happy Solstice.” He repeated the display in 2010 but then upped the stakes significantly.
Furthermore in 2011, Vix recruited 10 others “to inundate the city with applications for tongue-in-cheek displays, such as an homage to the ‘Pastafarian religion’, which included an artistic representation of the great Flying Spaghetti Monster.
The atheists used half of their spaces to display signs that are offensive to Christians, such as one that showed pictures of Poseidon, Jesus, Santa Claus and the devil, saying: “37 million Americans know myths when they see them. What myths do you see?”
Most of the signs were vandalized, and with the uproar that followed, the city effectively ended a tradition that began in 1953 and which earned Santa Monica one of its nicknames: the “City of the Christmas Story.”
Atheist Vix said while he was pleased with Monday’s ruling, he was also saddened by the anger being directed against atheists, since he hung his first anti-God sign in 2009.
“So many people don’t understand atheists,” Vix lamented. “If you read the signs we put up, one said, ‘Love is all around you.’ That’s really a better understanding of who most atheists are.”
William Becker, the attorney for the Christian group, compared the city of Santa Monica to Pontius Pilate -- the Roman official who authorized the crucifixion of Jesus.
The Associated Press reported further that Becker said he expects the case will be dismissed at a hearing on Dec. 3, based on Monday’s proceedings and plans to appeal.
We asked our viewers via our daily online poll Isyu Ngayon on Balitang America if they agree with the judges’ decision to ban this “Belen” in Santa Monica. An overwhelming majority -- 95 percent of our respondents disagreed on grounds of religious freedom and the need to respect each other’s religious beliefs and religious practices.
On the other hand, five percent argued on upholding the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which rules that there should be a separation between church and state.
While it can be debatable how this "Establishment Clause" contradicts the “Freedom of Religion” also guaranteed by the Constitution, this clause is interpreted to rule that government should be neutral with regard to religion -- that government should remain neutral, neither favoring nor disfavoring any religion or even those who do not believe in nor practice any religion.
What do you think? Do you agree with the judge’s decision to ban the Belen display in a public park?