Season of goodwill ... a woman walks past the nativity display in Palisades Park last year. Photo: AP
A US federal judge has denied a Christian group's bid to display a nativity scene in a Los Angeles park. District Court Judge Audrey Collins formalised an earlier tentative ruling.
William Becker, the lawyer for the Christian group, said he would appeal.
"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," Mr Becker said after the hearing on Monday.
Christmas nativity scenes have been erected in Palisades Park for decades. Last year, atheists overwhelmed the city's auction process for display sites, winning most of the slots and triggering a bitter dispute.
Santa Monica officials snuffed the city's holiday tradition this year rather than referee the religious rumble, prompting churches that have set up a 14-scene Christian diorama to sue over freedom-of-speech claims.
"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 [how] our saviour had to hunt for a place to be born because the world was not interested," Hunter Jameson, head of the non-profit Santa Monica Nativity Scene Committee, said in advance of the hearing.
The atheists were not parties to the legal 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.
National atheist groups earlier this year took out full-page newspaper ads and hundreds of TV spots in response to Catholic bishops' activism around women's health care issues and are gearing up to battle for their own space alongside public Christmas displays in small towns across America this season.