San Jose Public Nativity Protest
by Dave Kong, California State Director
On December 5, California American Atheists converged on San Jose to support
local Atheists objecting to a nativity scene placed annually in the city’s
Plaza de Cesar Chavez. In total, 16 courageous Atheists came out to protest
the blatantly religious display, asking for its removal from public property
and for the City of San Jose to cease funding support for the sponsoring
The display is owned and erected by Christmas in the Park, a nonprofit
organization. For many years, they have erected a mini-village known as
Christmastown, which includes a train, mechanical displays, decorated trees,
as well as the nativity scene. This nonprofit group receives a substantial
portion of its funding from the Convention and Visitors Bureau and the
Downtown Association, which are directly funded by the city. In addition, the
city spends several thousands of dollars each year providing security and
maintenance to the plaza while the village is there.
The city has received complaints against the créche for many years. In 1994,
the display was moved to the front of a nearby church in an attempt to address
these concerns. After consulting with only one Jewish group, and due to an
outcry from the Christian community, the display was returned to the public
square. Since then, the original display has been replaced with a larger, more
life-sized version, and the city has dismissed any objections.
This year, American Atheists formally objected to the display, and asked both
the city and Christmas in the Park to remove the display. Both organizations
claim that the display is constitutional because secular holiday items
surround the nativity. However, they did not deny or comment on the use of
public funds to support the display.
After negotiations failed, American Atheists decided to protest the display.
Meeting in front of the Tech Museum just before noon, participants were given
protest signs and handouts that explained American Atheists’ purpose for the
demonstration. The demonstration took place directly in front of the nativity,
and lasted for almost two hours.
Several participants were San Jose residents. Others came from the surrounding
area, the San Francisco Bay Area, Santa Cruz, and even as far away as Los
Angeles. John Messina, the American Atheists member and city resident who
spearheaded the movement against the display, protested dressed in an Uncle
Sam outfit. Member Dave Vorous wore a Santa Claus costume and carried a sign
that proclaimed “I am god with training wheels.” Other sign messages included
“no public funds for religious displays,” “no religious displays on public
property,” and “the holiday season is more than just Christmas.”
The response was more positive than expected. While the majority of passersby
supported the display, many people accepted our flyer. Some even expressed
their support, and a few were interested in learning more about American
Those who did not support us were generally curt but polite. Some parents
would not accept the handout, but their children would take them. Other
parents would not accept one, but then had to explain to their kids why we
After learning that a substantial number of protesters would be there, some of
the local media decided to cover the event. News reports were aired on ABC’s
affiliate stations in San Jose and San Francisco. Their coverage was even-handed, and showed a brief interview with California State Director Dave Kong.
San Jose’s channel 11 expressed interest in the story but did not cover it,
quite possibly because they are one of the sponsors of Christmastown.
It was a very successful event. It helped to raise the issue of public holiday
religious displays in the public’s consciousness as well as promote American
Atheists and our position. The most important lesson to be learned from this
protest is that a significant numbers of protesters is sometimes necessary to
get media attention. It is easy for the press to dismiss one person, but a
larger group is news and cannot be ignored.
Photos -- click for larger version
You can view a short (less than 5 minutes) video segment in Real™ format. If you do not already have a player, you can get one free from http://www.real.com/. The link to the free player is a bit difficult to spot sometimes, but it is there on the first page.
There are two versions of the clip:
- 56K modems. Try this link first if you have a 56K modem.
- 28.8 Modems. If you have a 28.8 modem, or the network is particularly congested, this is a lower bandwidth (and quality) version.
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