American Atheist Home

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 organization.

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 Atheists.

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 were there.

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 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.

Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.