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One of the nativity scenes at Palisades Park on display last Christmas. City Council’s unanimous voted June 12 put an end to the nearly 60-year tradition.
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One of the nativity scenes at Palisades Park on display last Christmas. City Council’s unanimous voted June 12 put an end to the nearly 60-year tradition.

News, City Council, Santa Monica, Courts

Federal Court Rebuffs Request From Santa Monica Nativity Scene Coalition

Posted Nov. 20, 2012, 1:49 am

Parimal M. Rohit / Staff Writer

The holiday season is just around the corner, but there may be a little less cheer amongst a group hoping to bring Nativity Scenes back to Santa Monica. A federal judge rejected a motion Monday, Nov. 19 by a group seeking to prevent City Hall from enforcing its ban on erected structures at Palisades Park.

U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins ruled Monday morning against the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, which had two weeks earlier filed a request for a preliminary injunction to prevent Santa Monica from enforcing its ban against Nativity Scenes along a stretch of Ocean Avenue. The Committee claimed the ban violated the group’s First Amendment rights under the Establishment Clause.

Collins denied the preliminary injunction, stating the city ordinance was constitutional and that City Hall was legally entitled to prevent erected structures in public spaces so long as the ban was equally applied to everyone irrespective of beliefs and it allowed for religious speech to take place in other public forums.

Representing the Committee were attorneys William J. Becker, Jr., and Michael John Peffer, who filed the preliminary injunction motion in hopes to allow Nativity scenes to be displayed at Palisades Park as their federal lawsuit plays out in the United States District Court.

Becker and Peffer stated in the motion their client has displayed Nativity Scenes in Santa Monica for 59 years, the last eight of which were pursuant to Santa Monica’s “content-neutral Winter Display Policy.”

The attorneys stated City Hall effectively squelched constitutionally protected religious speech and its actions would “unlawful actions seek to erase history under the disingenuous pretense that this year administrative resources will be compromised due to ‘increased impacts on the park and on staff resources.’”

According to reports, Collins disagreed with that argument at Monday morning’s hearing, saying City Hall did not enact its policy based upon any specific content.

In light of Monday’s ruling, the Committee’s attorneys expect the federal matter on the trial to be dismissed in early December. Becker said an appeal is planned.

“At stake is Plaintiff’s First Amendment right of expression in a traditional public forum—a public park,” Becker and Peffer wrote in their motion for a preliminary injunction.

Until last year, displays depicting the birth of Jesus Christ were allowed at Palisades Park as part of an exception to the general citywide rule prohibiting the erection of structures in public parks.

For decades, City Hall allowed religious institutions to use Palisades Park to erect unattended displays during the Christmas season. Through 2010, the City Hall exception was utilized by groups or churches wishing to celebrate the birth of Christ as told in the gospels of Luke and Matthew and presented the popular manger scene in diorama form.

Three-dimensional statutes of a baby Jesus surrounded by Joseph, Mary, and various angels and shepherds attracted many onlookers to a popular stretch of Ocean Avenue.

Other displays existed as well, promoting the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, for example. There were also atheist and solstice displays.

However, as Christmas 2011 approached, the number of groups requesting use of Palisades Park under the City Hall exception far exceeded the space available. Local officials resorted to a lottery system to determine who would be entitled to set up a display.

The lottery was employed, according to City staff, “in order to allocate display opportunities in an unbiased manner.”

City Hall’s initial decision sparked a controversy, particularly because the groups displaying nativity scenes at Palisades Park now had stiff competition for space. Due to the lottery system, “most spaces being allocated (were) to displays that opposed religion,” staff added.

Specifically, 18 of the 21 spaces in Palisades Park were allocated to atheist groups. Only two slots were allocated to Christmas displays; a Hanukkah display was awarded the other slot.

Accordingly, the issue became tense with differing groups hoping to put up a winter display of some sort during the Christmas season. City Hall then began to contemplate whether to eliminate its exception altogether and extend the strict prohibition against private displays in public spaces within Santa Monica at Palisades Park.

The first nativity scene in a public setting in Santa Monica was in 1953.

According to reports, the City Attorney’s office stated city staff annually spends about 245 hours reviewing applications for spaces.

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Comments

Nov. 20, 2012, 2:46:20 am

Chowski said...

Why do the Christians always have to parade their lifestyle choice in front of our children?!

Nov. 20, 2012, 3:32:16 am

SMH said...

next we should divide the city in to sections by the color of your skin.

Nov. 20, 2012, 6:15:57 am

zerotoleranceforbs said...

Jesus wasn't even born Dec. 25'th. Its a stolen pagan holiday. The manger/nativity has ZERO place in Yuletide. Oh sorry, Christians force us to call it Christmas these days.

Nov. 20, 2012, 7:25:34 am

Laura Lucchesi said...

1769: Father Juan Crespi -- a Franciscan in Gaspar de Portola’s expedition party -- inspired by a free-flowing natural spring names the area after Saint Monica, who wept for her wayward son. ( should not the history create a grandfather clause to the rights of the nativity and to respect of the founders?!)

Nov. 20, 2012, 8:08:08 am

PaganMan said...

Laura --no.... Welcome to Soviet Monica....can't smoke anywhere, can't practice our religion's how we want. Zero is right though, it is a pagan holiday. The tree is not a Christian tradition nor was Jesus born during December (more likely February.) Should faith be practiced sure, but don't we have enough propaganda out there as it is? and this is public land so I'd like to see all forms of religions out there, but alas it seems the Christian's want their cake and eat it. What I am trying to say is that there would be a lot less fuss if it was a Menorah or Pagan Bush decorated in a Pagan way -not silly Christian decorations. I agree Public Lands are just that "everyone's", so everyone should agree-which will never happen.

Nov. 20, 2012, 3:25:56 pm

David said...

One by one, the liberties and freedoms of the United States, one nation under god are being taken from us by those who wish to push their personal agenda and impose their will on the populace .Why are the atheists so hateful and angry ? Promote peace on earth and goodwill to man. So goes the decline and fall of America

Nov. 21, 2012, 3:29:37 am

Kathleen Brooks said...

I read with dismay that the Nativity Displays that have long been a popular tradition in Santa Monica are no longer allowed because of a City Council that finds it all to stressful to defend. A large majority of our nations' population is Christian. I grew up in Santa Monica and my parents and I always looked forward to the beautiful displays depicting the birth of Jesus Christ. It is sad to think that atheist and others who are not Christians cannot live with this diplay for a couple of weeks each December, and that this small minority can get its way. What happened to majority rules? I hope that this longstanding traditio so dear many of us who live or have lived in Santa Monica can somehow be restored. From: Kathleen Rockwell Brooks

Nov. 25, 2012, 1:26:25 pm

Spencer Welch II said...

To be fair it was the "Christians" who defaced atheist displays last year because they lost the lottery fair and square resulting in the banning of all displays. As an atheist I do not wish ill upon those who practice religion I pity them and hope that they find the enlightenment that I did when I left the Roman Catholic Church of my Irish Catholic upbringing (there were pictures of JFK and Jesus in the hall) and discovered the truth about the farce that is Theism.

Nov. 26, 2012, 3:18:57 am

Jess said...

This is so stupid!! This is not about the religions anymore but the Tradition!! Can one understand that? Atheist is said not to follow any religion but they are trying to create one called "ATHEIST". They said Religion create war and making trouble but it seems like they are trying to do all that. How Ridiculous!!!

Nov. 26, 2012, 3:41:50 pm

Jesus said said...

This is the one and only GOOD thing the Santa Monica city council has ever done.

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