LOS ANGELES — Damon Vix didn’t have to go to court to push Christmas out of the city of Santa Monica. He just joined the festivities.
The atheist’s anti-God message alongside a life-sized nativity display in a park overlooking the beach ignited a debate that burned brighter than any Christmas candle.
Santa Monica officials canceled the city’s holiday tradition this year rather than referee the religious squabble, prompting churches that have set up a 14-scene Christian diorama for decades to sue over freedom of speech violations. Their attorney will ask a federal judge Monday to resurrect the depiction of Jesus’ birth, while the city aims to eject the case.
‘‘It’s a sad, sad commentary on the attitudes of the day that a nearly 60-year-old Christmas tradition is now having to hunt for a home, something like our savior had to hunt for a place to be born because the world was not interested,’’ said Hunter Jameson, head of the nonprofit Santa Monica Nativity Scene Committee that is suing.
Missing from the courtroom drama will be Vix and his fellow atheists, who are not parties to the case. Their role outside court highlights a tactical shift as atheists evolve into a vocal minority eager to get their non-beliefs into the public square as never before.
Three years ago, Vix applied for and was granted a booth in Palisades Park alongside the story of Jesus Christ’s birth. Vix hung a simple sign that quoted Thomas Jefferson: ‘‘Religions are all alike — founded on fables and mythologies.’’
Vix repeated the display the following year, and in 2011, he recruited 10 others to submit applications for tongue-in-cheek displays. The secular coalition won 18 of 21 spaces. The two others went to the traditional Christmas displays and one to a Hanukkah display. National atheist groups are gearing up to battle for their own space alongside public Christmas displays in small towns across America this season.